The Internet, Carbon Emissions & The Need to Act

Speaking to our clients recently about the carbon emissions of their websites has made Fabulous Marketing realise quite how little is known about the energy demanded to run the Internet. ‘Do websites even produce carbon?’ was one such response.

In a world trying to reduce the use of paper, corporate travel and the plastics associated with meetings and meeting venues, we can see why global teams communicating via Zoom or Skype for Business instead of travelling to meet, vast office blocks being vacated in preference for mobile working and email replacing traditional posted-paper based campaigns would be seen as supporting the world’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, we are wrong. Although we tend to see the Internet and e-communications as clean and carbon neutral, there is a growing school of thought that evidences the Internet having a real environmental impact. With longer working hours, the impact of the smartphone and social media sites being trawled long past the hours of the old ‘working day’ we are doing real damage with our invisible effect.

The Carbon Bigfoot

The carbon emissions and energy consumption of the Internet are huge. Electricity is the heartbeat of the Internet: used to power devices, data centres, the cloud and the telecommunication networks. In reality, the global Internet uses more power than the whole of the UK, around 417 terawatt-hours of electricity per year to be precise. This equates to 2% of the entire global carbon emissions. That figure is equal to the carbon emissions of the global aviation industry- arguably considered one of the worst polluting industries in the world. If the Internet were a country, being measured for its emissions, it would be the sixth worse polluter in the world- equal to Germany.

With global warming and energy efficiency at the top of the list of issues for most governments globally and with industries targeted on reducing their annual outputs and driving emissions down, the Internet is set to fail these policies and initiatives, increasing emissions year on year. With access to the Internet increasing and data becoming cheaper and faster, the number of users is likely to increase rather than decrease. The popularity of streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube and Spotify encourage us to stream our entertainment more than ever. With most 11-year olds owning a smartphone in the UK, access to the Internet and thus the emissions of the Internet have never been higher and are on the rise. As the consumer expects more and more entertainment from websites: video, games, interactive calculators and of course load times at the speed of light, even ordinary websites are becoming increasingly data heavy.

HTTPArchive.org claim that the average webpage today is nearly four times the size that it was in 2010. As a result of this continuous rise, unless a fundamental step change is made, in less than 10 years’ time, the Internet could account for 3.5% of global carbon emissions.

Target 2020

One of the world’s leading climate scientists and former co-chair of the International Panel on Climate Change states that “the year 2020 is crucial. If CO2 emissions continue to rise beyond that date, the most ambitious mitigation goals will become unachievable.”

With 2020 a mere 14 months away, marketers, web developers, influencers and business owners have a small window to transform web development from being one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. We have no choice but to start to bring our industry’s emissions down.

Making a Difference to Carbon Emissions

How can we do this? Firstly, we educate. We measure the output of our websites and we understand the size of the issue. This is not simply a target for the big guns. This is small steps from every single website owner. Next, we can look at the ways that we transfer data, reduce its occurrence and thus reduce emissions. Next, we can embrace renewable energy sources in offices, data warehouses, storage units and wherever we power up devices.

Measurement tools show that on average, a website produces 6.8grams of CO2 per page view. If your website has an average of 10,000-page views per month, that’s 816kg of CO2 per year- equivalent to the emissions of a flight from London to Tokyo.

This is one area of the carbon footprint where every one of us can make a significant difference. And if we do that together, the output of all the small changes will be vast. We can make a difference. There are three main ways to increase website efficiency. Reducing the weight of every site is the first. By using vector graphics, smaller files than JPEGs or GIFs, uploading scaled images rather than relying on your CSS to reduce to the optimum size for your page and compressing files and downloads not only will reduce your emissions but will increase load speed.

Investing in some excellent SEO management will increase the user experience and drive visitors to your site that want your product rather than having huge volumes of visitors who are in the wrong place- increasing your bounce rate and leaving your site as soon as it loads. We can remove the autoplay function on video content, use google fonts rather than custom fonts, concentrating on the words and images to show your USP rather than the curvature of your lettering. We can reduce tracking and advertising scripts and accept that although it isn’t as beautiful, a stripped-down site is far more efficient and green.

Utilising a responsive caching solution is the second main way to decrease emissions. Caching of a site means that the user’s server remembers your site, meaning that their returning visit to you requires less bandwidth to reload, instead, storing static resources externally to the host. Although some sceptics insist on clearing their cache daily for the fear of ‘big brother’ allowing cached sites to be served is a huge way we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Thirdly, we can reduce the number of pages on our sites. By reducing the number of clicks involved with a visitor’s journey, the number of page loads and thus views reduce. Creating a more streamline consumer journey, coupled with encouraging only useful visits by engaging excellent SEO means fewer visits to our sites. Although fewer visits may feel counterintuitive, if the volume of inconsequential visitors, resulting in an increased bounce rate is your metric, your marketing support is measuring vanity metrics rather than measures that are going to make a difference to your bottom line.

If you are interested in measuring your current website emissions and looking for ways to reduce your carbon impact, in the first instance, contact hello@fabgroupco.com or by calling Fabulous Marketing on 0800 112 0880.

 

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