By Amy Czuba, senior account manager at Nexer Digital
The internet emits a massive amount of CO2, with its annual emissions exceeding those of the airline industry. The energy demand from data centres, where servers need round the clock powering as well as cooling to prevent overheating, means the internet and its associated products produce as much carbon as Hong Kong, Singapore, North Korea, Bangladesh, The Phillippines, Sri Lanka and Mongolia combined.
Despite an ever-increasing focus on sustainability from businesses and other organisations, digital products are chronically overlooked in many cases, and this could be harming wider environmental initiatives.
In recent years, businesses around the world have had to improve ESG strategies to meet the demands of customers and stakeholders and some progress is being made towards a net-zero future. For example, IKEA invested EUR 200 million into decarbonising its supply chain and supporting reforestation initiatives, as well as phasing out virgin materials and reducing single-use plastic packaging. Other brands are championing a circular economy, such as outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia, which offers repairs and recycling for its products in addition to all offices and stores being 100% powered by renewable energy.
These strategies from large corporations are essential in curbing the climate crisis, but ESG needs to be holistic and consider digital as well as physical. Failing to minimise the impact of websites or apps could counteract wider sustainability successes.
High energy use by the internet is something of an inevitability, but there are ways that businesses can reduce their digital carbon footprint to align with wider sustainability philosophies.
Audit current output
The current lack of importance placed on digital carbon footprints is largely due to a lack of awareness. The first step to changing this is becoming informed on how much CO2 various digital processes emit and identifying savings from here. The starting point for physical sustainability strategies should be to carry out an audit to see where the organisation is and identify where improvements can be made, and digital impact reduction is no different. By measuring digital carbon footprint, organisations can make conscious decisions on their digital practices, and build a plan for better digital sustainability.
A single email, for example, can emit 10g of carbon, increasing to 50g if sent with an attachment. In some businesses, thousands of emails will be sent and received each day, which demonstrates why digital sustainability needs to play a greater role in ESG strategy. When these emails are then stored on computers or clouds without an auto-delete retention policy, even more carbon is emitted to retain them. Introducing a retention policy which means all emails are deleted after five years, for example, will begin to improve a business’s digital footprint.
Websites are also key carbon emitters and an element that organisations must consider and improve to truly minimise ecological impact. The more complex a webpage is, the more polluting it is. For example, images, videos and even certain colours put more strain on the bandwidth and therefore use more energy. Website carbon output can be benchmarked using Website Carbon Calculator and this should be done at the outset of a sustainability journey so businesses can see how carbon-intensive their website is and whether the hosting servers are using green energy.
Servers and hosting
As with commercial and residential buildings, data centres can be powered by green energy or traditional energy. As power-hungry facilities, organisations should be looking to host their website on green-powered servers to minimise carbon footprint.
The need for a greener web is becoming more recognised and several key hosts are adjusting to this. Microsoft, Amazon and Google all use at least 50% renewable energy to power their servers, so green hosts are not hard to come by for organisations looking to improve their credentials.
To find out if their current host has genuine green commitments, organisations need to look for meaningful statements of green energy in data centres as well as other facilities and wider policies in energy efficiency, electronic waste and travel. The best policies will have tangible, measurable commitments rather than vague or unsubstantiated statements.
Another decision for organisations to consider is if they use a dedicated or cloud server. Cloud-based servers are the eco-friendlier option, as well as more cost-effective for businesses, but may not be appropriate in every case.
The Green Web Foundation has a directory of sustainable hosts, which is a good place to look if an existing host isn’t committed to being green.
Better website sustainability does not have to and should not come at the cost of diminished user experience. There are a number of technical fixes that can be made to deliver a site of the same quality but without servers working so hard, reducing the amount of energy needed to deliver it.
Compressing webpages will make them smaller and therefore less demanding on bandwidth and energy to load and caching delivers copies of stored pages or resources rather than having to redownload them from the originating server each time. Another way of reducing bandwidth strain is optimising the website to require fewer requests or bundled requests that spend less time loading.
Once a website is technically optimised, focus can then move on to ensuring the contents are as eco-friendly as possible. This means being mindful about the way videos and images are used on the website as they are energy-intensive and how intuitively the site can be navigated.
Web content needs to be loaded, and therefore the easier it is to find required pages, the less energy is used. In addition, the more time users spend on a website, the more energy is used. Ensuring enhanced usability will decrease the need for excess navigation between pages and by making information clear and concise, site visitors will need to spend less time on each page. Both of these elements will reduce CO2 emissions.
Running readability tests on content will ensure it is easy to understand, reducing the amount of time website users spend on each page. Improving search engine optimisation (SEO) will make content more accessible, limiting the need for multiple Google searches and making the company website more visible in searches in the process.
Case study – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
As an organisation delivering world-leading plant science, conservation and education programmes, Royal Botanic Garden has started to improve the carbon footprint of its website to align with its wider philosophy. The project started with an audit in December 2021, revealing its homepage’s baseline emission of 1.70g of CO2 for each pageview. It was also revealed that its server was running on non-green energy.
Since the audit, there has been a promising start on a number of recommendations, such as looking at greener ways to host the site and improving the technical performance of the website so that it is lighter and less exhaustive on resources. This has already resulted in a 15% reduction in CO2 per homepage visit.
A growing focus on sustainability cannot begin and end at how organisations physically operate. Of course, this is still crucial, but environmental strategies need to go deeper and make digital sustainability just as important. Doing so will ensure environmentalism is running through every strand of a business and that digital and physical philosophies are truly aligned for maximum impact.
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