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It’s time for the internet to become more sustainable

Airplanes, livestock, monster trucks – we know these have a significant carbon footprint. Digital activities, on the other hand, sometimes go under the radar. Consider, for example, the carbon contribution of internet searches. All data from websites is stored on servers and that costs energy. Data centers, rooms filled to the ceiling — sometimes as big as many football fields — with row after row of servers, accounting for about one percent of global electricity consumption, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2021 Tracking Report.

Data center energy consumption has remained stable since at least 2010, according to the IEA report, even as Internet traffic has increased exponentially. The organization attributes the consistency in part to the continued improvements in energy efficiency that data center technologies have undergone. But the IEA also warns that global internet traffic continues to grow. Traffic more than doubled between 2017 and 2020 and could double again by 2023, the report says. At some point it makes sense to temper the energy demand of the web. So, what is needed in the quest for a more sustainable web?

The sustainable web is just getting started…

The field of sustainable web design is still in its infancy, but there have been groups that have created energy-efficient sites and processes. Recently, a new coalition of American and European companies and non-governmental organizations came together with a focus on the environmental impact of the Internet. The group includes organizations such as The Green Web Foundation, which has a vision of a fossil-free internet in 2030and companies like EcoPingthat has a range of tools to reduce the CO2 emissions of websites.

The collaboration has resulted in a platform, SustainableWebDesign.org, where web technology creators can find methods, recommendations and tools to help them create sustainable products and services. The basis of all coalition offers is the Sustainable Web Manifesto, which: includes six principles that touch on environmental impact, but also extend to social impact – as in really embracing the triple bottom line. These principles include clean energy use, resource efficiency, as well as accessibility to all users and non-exploitative design.

…and it needs your help

As for why an organization or company would join the Sustainable Web Manifesto, the contributors made a compelling argument about the urgency of climate change. They write: “The planet is experiencing unprecedented climate change and the internet is part of the problem as well as the solution. From websites to cryptocurrencies, the internet consumes large amounts of electricity in data centers, telecom networks and end-user devices. If the internet were a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter in the world and is expected to grow significantly by 2030.”

Climate impacts are a very practical consideration, as Tim Frick, president and founder of Mightybytes — one of the lead organizations of the new coalition — told TriplePundit in an email interview, “…the climate crisis is here. It is the existential crisis of our time. It affects every business, nonprofit, government agency and, most importantly, every individual in the world, especially our most vulnerable communities.”

Frick adds that limiting greenhouse gas emissions to the extent necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement is a challenge. “While that may seem daunting, progress starts with everyone taking a small step. This is ours,” he said.

Some small steps towards a cleaner web

Where can one start as a web developer? Well, according to Frick, who has been working on this forward-thinking vision for the web since 2011, those involved in creating websites should view it as a learning path. The Coalition’s Online Hub Lists strategies for every step of the web development process, from design and development to ‘customer and project ethic’. Along the way, those who are serious about decarbonizing websites will learn how to estimate carbon emissions, make the necessary adjustments for efficiency and performance, use green web hosts and stay informed through newsletters and other publications. The resources are all collected on the new website – ready to use.

One of the coalition’s biggest projects is to develop a method to calculate digital emissions and build it into existing tools. Standardization was key. “Our shared goal is to create resources that provide consistent emissions estimates,” said Tom Greenwood, director of Wholegrain Digital, a London-based Certified B Corp, in a press statement. “If you get different results from digital carbon calculation tools that are essentially meant to do the same thing, it sends a confusing message. This could lead to people underestimating emissions, or worse, doing nothing at all.”

The group recently met with the World Wide Web Consortium, which is creating the standards to create guidelines similar to those developed for the Web Accessibility Initiative, which has been successfully supported. Last year eg. Colorado passed a law requiring state and local public entity websites to meet accessibility standards. As it builds digital sustainability standards, the coalition is actively looking for additional employees. Interested parties can contact the Contact Form from the Sustainable Web Design site.

Image credit: Israel Palacio via Unsplash

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