Global economic growth, energy consumption and CO2 emissions - statistics from ourworldindata.org cited by Microsoft;
source: Official Microsoft Blog
Microsoft's data published recently suggests that the growth of the past decades has been possible predominantly thanks to energy consumption. As programmers we might be tempted to think then, how can we approach the current state of tech development with a more conscious mindset. What can we do at home and at work to contribute to a more sustainable life? Before we answer that, however, let’s clarify what the digital ecological footprint really is.
What is the digital ecological footprint?
Let’s start with the definition of the carbon footprint. It is the amount of greenhouse gases produced by individuals, events, actions, organizations, services, products, expressed as the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.
However, the amount of carbon dioxide may not relate to many, since it is hard to imagine its effect only by looking at the numbers. Therefore, we can look at the term “the ecological footprint” to get a better understanding of our effect on nature.
The simplest way to define the ecological footprint would be to call it the metric that indicates how many hectares of forest, pasture, farmland and marine land are needed to renew the resources we consumed and absorb the waste products we produced. Ecological footprint can be calculated for an individual, a company, country, even the planet.
Given these definitions, digital carbon footprint then can be explained as the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by our beloved digital world.
In this article we will use the term “the digital carbon footprint” as the main metric, but sometimes give the equivalent of it in the ecological footprint as well.
What factors contribute to the digital carbon footprint?
Digital products need certain hardware and medium to be used such as smartphones, laptops, servers with different purposes. All these gadgets, servers, internet infrastructure, data centers require electricity. Unfortunately, much of this electricity still comes from nonrenewable resources.
So, our actions on the internet cause the hardware to use more energy. That basically means anything on the cloud: every single search query, every streamed song, podcast or video, every email sent, every gifs, every button click, billions of times all around the world.
According to the Climatecare organization, more than 4 billion people are using the Internet everyday by 2021. Individual actions may seem very small, but it all adds up to an ever-increasing global demand for electricity and to rising CO2 emissions, contributing to 3.7% of the World’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Besides, the Global IT sector’s demand on electricity is ranked 3rd, after the USA and China’s total demand for electricity.  Let’s get nerdy and check some more statistical information:
Cost of daily internet
Humans are habitual creatures. Eating, talking, walking, working, getting coffee before work, etc. We naturally continue that in our Internet usage. We have internet habits, such as music or a video streaming in the background, checking social media or emails regularly and so on.
While this was not possible maybe a generation ago, it is very normal now. Clearly digital products are a part of our lives. The convenience they provide us is amazing. They make our lives easier, save us our valuable time, and let us automate many tasks and labors which otherwise would require us to do it manually.
This doesn’t mean a sort of a global Internet addiction but more so a strong reliance on it. It is no wonder we feel that we rely on the Internet more and more each day. Such an increase in reliance on digital tools has an environmental impact that's becoming increasingly harder to ignore.
Here are a few examples of Internet actions and their carbon emission values:
- Spam email: 0.3 g CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent)
- Standard email: 4 g CO2e
- An email with “long and tiresome attachments”: 50 g CO2e (source)
- A simple Google search: 0.2 g CO2e
- Timeline scrolling on instagram: 1.6 g CO2e
- Netflix streaming: 55 g CO2e/hour
These numbers are based on average estimates. So, you might be thinking, how is this calculated?
How is this calculated?
It is very difficult to get precise readings on the energy consumption of a single action. This is due to the nature of a request. Nowadays, a digital product uses a whole bunch of different services, APIs in order to perform. That means, your single HTTP request creates a ripple effect on the Internet.
However, we can approximate based on the total energy consumption of certain points such as data centres, servers, and then take an approach from top to bottom to estimate how much a singular request would cause.
Such calculations depend on many factors, for example:
- How much data is being sent over the wire?
- How efficient is the data centre working?
- What’s the energy source used by the data centre?
- What are the losses during the internet transmission?
- What’s the energy source of your Internet provider?
And many more... In case you wonder, here you can find an open source calculator for your website’s carbon footprint.
Why is the digital ecological footprint an important problem?
In today’s industrialized and increasingly automated world, many of us care about the impact we exert on the world around us. Some of this influence is connected with the way we can regulate the amount of energy consumption, resource waste (buying new electronic devices), to name a few. Therefore, it pays off to realize the way in which our actions may shape both the digital world and the ecosystems around us. We do not live in isolation from the environment which is reported to have been put under tremendous strain these last decades.
From awareness to action
The IT community understands both the challenges and benefits general development brings with it. That’s why we all can make a positive mark by, for example, using our limited wildlife resources awareness to limit technological waste or our electrical energy consumption levels. In the comfort of our homes, it may mean even simple actions such as switching off electrical devices when they’re not needed, segregating waste or discarding defective electrical equipment in special disposal sites. Today we will try and take a look at what the representatives of the IT community can do.
What can a developer or designer do?
In the context of software professionals’ work, the “Sustainable Web Design” movement dedicated to making the web more eco-friendly, highlights a list of rules that can be applied to app and web development projects.
In their own terms,
Sustainable web design is an approach to designing web services that puts people and the planet first. It delivers digital products and services that respect the principles of the Sustainable Web Manifesto: clean, efficient, open, honest, regenerative, and resilient.
You can read or sign their manifesto here.
Why is this important? It seems that the Internet evolved too quickly into what we have today. While excess Internet usage is already an issue for individuals, it is scarcely being discussed as a contributor to climate change. Maybe we tend to assume that it has no negative side effects, because of all the benefits we get from it.
Currently there is no regulation of how a digital project should be developed, while maintaining low carbon footprint. Nevertheless, it can be a part of our individual work ethic to develop and design a product that has an optimal digital footprint. With that being said, there are things that a developer, designer or even a DevOps adds into his or her work just to produce a more ecological product.
Clear user experience
Providing a clear user interface and an intuitive navigation will both save users’ time and make your product better in terms of its carbon footprint. With proper UX and UI work, you will prevent users from wasting their time for something that can be done in a single click.
Based on the research, modern OLED displays can draw less power on darker colors. Additionally, the difference between a dark theme and light theme increases as the brightness increases. While this might not sound like a substantial amount, it will be more and more significant as your users increase.
Source: Google’s big Android battery ‘oops’ and future Dark Modes
So, you might consider using a darker color palette for your next project and save your users’ battery life.
Hosting and infrastructure
For instance, Google uses renewable resources for the Google Cloud Services. So, the infrastructure choices will naturally change how our digital product is affecting the environment. Maybe it is a good idea to check out the sustainability reports of your next hosting company?
Content and file sizes
It is obvious that the bigger the amount of data a page needs, the more carbon it emits. Therefore, it is no rocket science that it pays off to remove unnecessary files, scripts, commands, media, etc.
Also, there are more economical formats, extensions for our streams or media. For example, an image in a WebP format has around 30% smaller file size than the jpeg equivalent. This difference gets more smashing when we compare video formats. For example a video in an RGB24 format will take twice as much space as the same video in an Xvid format. While this is just a random example, the main takeaway here is that we should pay attention to what our purpose is in using certain file formats and question what we are putting into and serving from our platforms.
Designing an API is like using Occam’s Razor without getting cut. The perfect API response would return only the data we need, but real life is just a tad different. Developers may end up including a bunch of nested objects, unnecessary fields in the API responses and have no time to refactor that.
However, if we code with such awareness, maybe we can spare a few database queries and trim the response content in a more efficient way.
By definition, a cache policy is a set of rules that are used to determine whether a request can be satisfied using a cached copy of the requested resource. So, a good cache policy is the king. In case you use a CDN, then it makes more sense to choose a CDN server closer to your main audience or locations with large numbers of users. Well, this requires you to do some research, but it is worth all the effort. So, with the correct cache policy you may save a large number of requests being answered without touching the actual servers.
Loading all the search results at once is probably the worst idea for your project. There are alternatives, such as using pagination or an infinite scroll which will load the new resources on demand. This will help you to minimize the response sizes and provide a better performance, as well as creating a much smaller carbon footprint.
Unnecessary requests and files
If you look into the request log of some of your projects, you might ask yourself “Is this script necessary?” I think we all have been there and you are not alone. You can create your personal checklist for trimming your website, for example:
- Check if any loaded script, style, font or media is unused.
- Can we achieve the same action without loading certain files, e.g. achieving basic DOM operations without loading JQuery?
- Are we embedding anything with a poor quality of request and response management?
Of course, these lists are interchangeable per project and requirement. What if we looked beyond the code and got inspired by other larger-scale possibilities we have as conscious individuals within organizations or companies?
Scale effect - companies can do a lot in their own backyards
Apart from people’s individual contribution, communities can do a lot collectively thanks to company initiatives and other larger-scale actions or projects. Such initiatives often entail more long-term thinking, comprehensive analysis of company resource life cycles and orientation on exerting a scale effect.
What can companies do to limit environmental impact?
The range of actions at the disposal of companies and organizations is wide and leaves stakeholders and decision-makers with much room for tangible action. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities here:
- Providing employees with amenities for convenient waste segregation
- Practicing habitual non-waste actions on a daily basis (e.g. not wasting food)
- Building environmental awareness by promoting wildlife preservation and ecology in general
- Preventing overuse of printed documents (applying digital signature tools where possible)
- Replacing tangible resource overuse for online communication tools if necessary
- Setting CO2e reduction-related targets
- Promoting resource repurposing-based operations in organizations (circular economy), for example supporting water reuse, e.g. as part of rainwater harvesting and management projects
- Developing and using carbon removal innovations and supporting natural carbon dioxide-mitigating solutions (e.g. forestation)
Of course, this tendency to protect our natural resources is already widespread and the most ambitious initiatives are also coming from the largest industry players that in the end carry a lot of responsibility.
What about the tech giants and their plans?
It’s worth noting that big tech companies are already getting very public about their digital carbon footprint scores and other sustainable initiatives. So, let’s take a quick look at the popular ones.
It is impressive that the tech giant is famous for their cloud services running 100% on renewable energy. Furthermore, they aim at smarter and more efficient data centers to lower the overall energy consumption. The company is transparent about their energy consumption - we can see that on their page about sustainability.
For developers and entrepreneurs, Amazon means infrastructure and storage more than a shopping platform. That being said, not all energy comes from renewable sources now. Amazon reported that their carbon emissions rose by 19% only in 2020. That might be the result of many factors, for example, the usage of streaming services and overall digital products that use AWS or S3 as well as usage of online shopping and delivery (you can read more about that here).
As part of our goal to reach net-zero carbon by 2040, Amazon is on a path to powering our operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025—five years ahead of our original target of 2030. In 2020, we became the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, reaching 65% renewable energy across our business.
Source: Amazon’s Sustainable Operations
Amazon is in the process of shifting to renewables fully by the year of 2025. Their goal for the next 20 years is to reach a net-zero carbon emission. That is an ambitious goal for Amazon, because of the size of the company.
Since 2020, Facebook is using 100% renewable resources. What’s more, they are pursuing a target of carbon net-zero in their operations by 2030. Based on their 2020 report on sustainability, currently only the operational emissions are at the net-zero level. While this sounds good, operational emissions seem to only mean all activities related to the use of buildings. While the majority of the IT companies worked remotely in 2020, it appears unclear how significant this achievement was for Facebook’s overall impact.
It is obvious that the amount of data Facebook is storing and transmitting everyday is enormous. On the other hand, it might be interesting to take a look at some of the things Facebook reports to have achieved by 2020, one of them being the promising-looking tests of the new WhatsApp code enhancements based on the Erlang programming language. The resulting minimization of compute storage by 25 percent in this case (while enabling identical performance) is definitely worth mentioning (you can read more about that in the sustainability report mentioned above).
Since 2015 Apple has been continuously striving to reduce their carbon emissions, the current target being to limit them by 75% by 2030. The company also focused on recycling materials for manufacturing purposes.
According to their 2021 environmental progress report, by 2030 they will be reaching a carbon net-zero. The company also emphasizes their innovations for low-energy consumption designs for hardware and software. Also, it was recently announced that Apple is funding a “working forest” project. You can read more about it here.
That being said, Apple has sold billions of devices and software since 2007 which automatically puts the corporation in a position of responsibility as a market leader.
According to their 2020 report on sustainability, Microsoft will be using 100% of renewable energy sources in their facilities and data centers by 2025. The company already started long term plans for renewables in 2013 by purchasing long-term power purchase agreements and has continued to purchase more ever since.
What's more, according to that report, by 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative and by 2050 it will be done removing all the carbon dioxide that has been emitted since 1975. You can read more about it here.
By 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.
Source: Microsoft News Center
A recent post on their website claims that Netflix will achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2022. Furthermore, they will be continuing on their path on a plan called “Net Zero + Nature” which is a multi-phase plan to reduce carbon emission to net zero, retain the existing carbon levels and stop it from entering the atmosphere. You can read more about Netflix’s plan here.
To recap the insights we captured here, our reliance on digital products has never been higher. While we drew a somewhat sobering picture in this article, the situation does need more attention from both individuals, organizations and companies as well as big industry players. Let’s take the good practice examples that are out there and do more in our own backyards - both individually or collectively.
While the IT industry is slowly changing, there is still a lot to do. Designers or developers can apply certain rules of thumb to their work or start ecological movements or initiatives in their departments or companies. For all of us, the crucial thing to do is to spread the knowledge. Thanks for reading.
- What is an ecological footprint?
- Measure what you treasure
- The World's Digital Carbon Footprint
- Deleting Emails Might Help Lower Your Carbon Footprint
- Every Google search results in CO2 emissions. This real-time data viz shows how much
- A quick guide to your digital carbon footprint
- 7 best practices to create sustainable websites
- So you wanna create an eco-friendly website
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