7th August 2023
Fighting the Internet's hidden emissions
Creating sustainable web design
Cursor Curated Issue 19
Picture the largest coal-fired machine you can think of. You’re probably imagining a power station of some kind – but what if we told you it was the Internet? According to Jack Amend, co-founder of the Web Neutral Project, high traffic websites are among the biggest contributors to global emissions.
So, why should we care? Firstly, we have a nationwide obligation to reach net zero emissions by 2050. At the time of writing, new government policies can meet 92% of emission cuts targets. But we still need to do more to hit this goal.
Secondly, it is a business imperative. Reducing our internet carbon footprint will reduce our legal, reputational and financial risks.
Finally, we have the customer to consider. Green websites not only help the planet, but provide a faster and more accessible user experience.
What do we mean by sustainable web design?
A green website design can mean anything from hosting to content optimisation. For example:
- Green web hosting – choosing providers powered by renewable energy
- Sustainable coding – writing code that can be reused later rather than becoming obsolete
- Accessible, inclusive design – this covers social sustainability. Websites must be accessible to people with disabilities or additional needs.
- End-of-life planning – digital products have a lifecycle, just like physical ones. We can reduce our carbon footprint with archiving, decommissioning or recycling.
We need to understand the terminology we’re using, not only to hit our targets but to avoid greenwashing.
Understanding the carbon footprint of high traffic websites
High traffic websites place huge demands on electricity and energy. Just one Google search emits 0.2g of carbon dioxide – enough to power a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds. Some industries are more energy-intensive than others. Cryptocurrency, for example, is a huge drain on resources. A Cambridge study into Bitcoin revealed that its operations released the same amount of carbon dioxide as the entire country of Serbia in 2019.
Learning more with website carbon calculators
To assess the carbon impact of your website traffic, you can try a website like Ecograder or Website Carbon. The former uses tools from The Green Web Foundation and Google Lighthouse’s open-source page metrics. It studies factors such as:
- Consumer device use
- Network use
- Data centre use
- Hardware production
- Regional carbon intensity
- Green hosting data
Google Lighthouse then makes suggestions for improvements based on quality metrics – in turn, improving SEO.
Why we have shared responsibility
We each have a moral obligation to reduce the carbon footprint of websites. The responsibility falls on both clients and developers.
Clients have the power to procure green hosting providers and work with partners who focus on efficient, accessible website design. Likewise, developers can promote green practices with code and asset optimisation, hosting platform selection, and overall design choices.
We think developers have a duty to explore new tools to improve website loading speed, accessibility and sustainability. We should never stop learning or discovering new ways to enhance performance.
Practical steps we can take
The best way to assure greener websites is to assign roles to clients and developers.
Optimise content – the developer’s responsibility
Developers can improve the user experience by compressing images and media files. Video should be minimal – and where there’s no other choice, we should consider streaming services rather than hosting directly on-site.
CSS and scripts should be minimised for faster loading times, along with lazy loading. It’s also important to consider file types, such as storage-friendly JPEGs over PNGs.
Curate content to reduce site size – client and developer responsibility
Contrary to popular belief, removing content can actually improve SEO! Clients should select poor-performing or out-of-date content for removal. This will also reduce the cognitive load of the site. Think of it as a ‘shop window’, not a comprehensive library.
Select green web hosts – client and developer responsibility
Both clients and developers need to educate themselves on what makes a green web host. This includes understanding Scope 3 emissions and how companies are offsetting their indirect impacts.
The best suppliers are transparent about their energy providers and wider impact initiatives. Digital Ocean clearly states its partnerships with 100% renewable suppliers, for instance. Other methods, such as edge computing, reduce the distance data needs to travel.
Micro sites – client and developer responsibility
Micro sites have a relatively small carbon footprint as they have been designed with one specific purpose in mind. They’re gaining in popularity, as demonstrated by the team at Volkswagen.
Sustainable web design is a win-win
Designing a slimmed-down website offers a broad range of benefits besides the environmental:
- Optimised content reduces page load times and improves the user experience.
- Sustainable design lowers cognitive load by trimming unnecessary content – ideal for accessibility.
- Low-impact sites are more inclusive. This is perfect for those with limited internet bandwidth, such as elderly users or those in emerging economies.
- These websites consume fewer server resources, leading to cost savings in hosting.
What comes next?
As sustainable website design advances over the years, we may start to see some new developments.
Advancements in energy-efficient servers
Servers, data centres and other green technologies may emerge, particularly to offset the AI revolution. These large-scale machine learning models require huge computational resources.
Sustainable web standards
Sustainable web standards and certifications will assess environmental impacts, such as W3.org. Government regulation may also impact the digital industry.
Increased public awareness
As consumers become more aware of the internet’s environmental impact, there may be more demand for sustainable websites.
Edge computing and decentralised networks will continue to lessen data travel distances.
At Cursor, we’re active members of Climate Action – championing simplicity for user experience and sustainability. We’ve studied websites for years. From basic pages and slow internet speeds to broadband connections and fancy functions, we’ve almost come full circle. However, we need to consider the environmental impact of these ‘bells and whistles’.
Less really is more, and the less our carbon impact, the better.