Are the digital experiences we build a major contributor to climate change?
I’ll excuse you if you laughed at the idea. I even felt a bit silly writing that question down. It’s just too obvious that the digital products and services we build do not use physical resources, right? They don’t get printed using dead bits of tree or chemical inks. We do not see large trucks burning fossil fuels freighting our products from our servers and into our customers’ hands.
As designers and developers, we are part of the solution and not the problem, right? Well, maybe not.
Sure, we don’t have to look too far to find serious research on how digitalisation can help to reduce the world’s carbon emissions. The World Economic Forum claims the digital industry can help cut global emissions by as much as 15%. But there’s another side to this story, a dirty secret we rarely talk about and are often slow to acknowledge.
of the world’s electricity consumption was attributed to the internet in 2019. (KTH Royal Institute of Technology)
of the world’s electricity could be consumed by the information and commuication technology industry by 2025. (The Guardian)
tonnes of greenhouse gases emitted per year by the internet. (Science Focus)
tonnes of greenhouse gases emitted in 2018 by the airline industry for the year. (The Guardian)
Our digital services constantly require electrical power. Unlike physical products, which will use resources only at the time of their production, our work continues to consume electricity twenty four hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. They will continue to burn electricity for as long as they are available, perhaps forever. Each page view, every single file downloaded and every video or track streamed burns ever more resources. And the amount of power the internet is consuming is increasing.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It must be possible to make the internet itself sustainable. We can make a choice to become mindful of the energy we are using. So what changes can we make today?
One of the most impactful decisions businesses can make is to host their digital assets in data centres which we know or believe use renewable energy. If you’re not responsible for these decisions, you can learn about the energy policies of your suppliers. It matters.
Where we cannot use 100% renewable energy, we can seek to understand the mix of renewables used by our cloud providers and estimate the amount of energy from non-renewable sources we use.
By actively modelling our behaviour around renewable energy, we can put pressure on our suppliers to become more mindful of their energy choices.
You can also rate your suppliers based on their energy policies and the estimated carbon impact of our hosting choices. That’s what we’re doing at Idean UK at the moment. Then we can choose to use and promote services with open and clean energy policies.
With web frameworks such as React, the dynamic experiences our customers expect can be hosted from CDNs.
Try only requiring calls to third party services, heavier server-side computation or read and writes from data storage when these things are absolutely necessary. We can make a choice to be considerate about these decisions.
There are lots of good reasons to continuously improve the usability of our digital products. One is to reduce the amount of energy needed to access our content.
Every click our users make, every page view consumes energy. If our users lose time and energy trying to find what they want or need, this waste is likely producing CO2e emissions.
We can track the time it takes for our users to find what they need and consider reducing this time as a target.
When reviewing digital products, we can call out experiences which add extra steps and friction to a user journey.
Over the lifespan of the internet, as connection speeds have increased, the average page weight or the measure of the size of a web page has also increased.
When internet connections were slow and heavier pages came with a cost, page weight was tracked, but we rarely talk about this metric today. The average page weight is currently around 2MB.
Every bit transferred from our host to a user’s browser consumes energy and has a corresponding emissions cost. Let’s buck the trend and begin to reduce the sizes of our pages.
We can be thoughtful about the assets we require our users to download, noting for example that fonts can contribute as much as 5% of a page’s total weight.
Image files are the single largest contributor to page weights. We can choose to be thoughtful about what images we include and exploit styles which reduce the need to use images at all.
We might only use larger media such as videos and animations when these things are integral to our digital product. We should refuse to play these at our users without them giving explicit consent.
According to http archive, the average web page makes around 75 requests on desktop and around 70 requests on mobile. We should aspire to reduce the number of calls our pages need to make. We can cache more.
When designing APIs we can strive to make the required payloads small and responses terse. Aim to ask for and return only the data that is needed; anything else is waste.
We can aim to be aware of the emissions impact of our third-party services. We can be careful when deciding what third-party services we use, seeking to understand their energy usage and emissions. We should be selective about how many and which third parties we will call.
When we know what and how much energy our digital products use, we will know what their climate impact is. We can estimate how much CO2e our digital products add to our climate.
By monitoring our energy use, we can avoid adding emissions to the atmosphere. Where we can’t avoid this, we will know the amount we need to offset. When we collect this data, we can share it.
At Idean, we are actively considering the models we can use to estimate the energy used by our digital products.
One obvious example is to look at the costs associated with hosting. Higher hosting costs tend to indicate higher energy usage. One approach we are considering is to estimate the energy consumed per working virtual machine (or node) hosting our service. We can estimate the energy used to run one node per day and then simply count the number of nodes we have. If we also know what percentage of the energy we’ve used comes from renewables, we can derive an estimate of the carbon footprint of our digital service.
As developers and designers, we’d all love a future where the businesses we work for are carbon neutral. We need our internet to have net zero emissions, even as it continues to grow.
I’ve shared some ideas about how we can reduce the energy used by our digital services and make sure the energy we use is coming from renewable sources. But we can’t do this alone. You need to take action, too.
If we decide to focus our minds and our technical skills on this problem, it will be solved. A sustainable internet is absolutely possible and we need to start working on it.