Better designed websites could reduce carbon footprint

A lone tree among green fields.
(Image credit: Pixabay)

As responsibility for the ongoing environmental crisis starts to be put on organizations, businesses are under pressure to prove their sustainability credentials are both truthful and impactful. Yet, while the government has set the UK on a path to net zero by 2050, organizations in both the private and public sector are working towards their own targets which are often more ambitious than the government’s own.

Put simply, net zero for an organization refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced through its activities, and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We must reduce those emissions by using less energy, disposing of less waste, and buying products and services that have a lower environmental impact.

But are we acting fast enough? And are we doing enough?

Organisations and governments are focusing on big ticket targets, including encouraging greener methods of transport like rail or bicycle, legislating a move from petrol to electric vehicles, decarbonising the power grid through the use of renewables, and focusing on improving recyclability and reuse in the design of consumer products. But businesses can be doing more with regards to the internet and digital services.

Carl Johnson

Director of Digital Contact at SSCL Defence.

Digital assets are pollutants

Digital websites and services come with their own environmental impact. In fact, digital technology is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is rising each year – it’s currently a bigger pollutant than the entire aviation industry. Something needs to change, but what?

The internet is an ever-present entity we can’t see and, thus, many believe its carbon footprint is minimal. Having the internet at our fingertips has become a given, with people expecting free access to all the information in the world at the touch of a button. Yet, the amount of energy it takes to operate the internet is vast. The data centers running it consume huge amount of energy to power, and cooling them burns fossil fuels, a major contributor to climate change. Less not forget about the vast quantity of electronic waste created as thousands of new devices go online every day, replacing those put to a final sleep.

Alongside this, the quantity of data on the internet is rising. Not only are the video streaming services, which already use a lot of data, always adding new content, but thousands of new web pages go live every day. Generative AI is also a data drain, forcing more energy usage and contributing to climate change.

Better understanding of the environmental impact of the internet is therefore required by creators and end users. Most people don’t look at or think about the internet as a pollutant. What they don’t know is that we can create and have carbon positive websites, and that fixing the internet’s inefficiencies will go a long way to helping our planet. These are problems we can start to resolve.

Design and coding can make a big difference

There’s a lot which can be done in terms or greening data centers, but easier and effective sustainability goals should start with climate friendly websites.

There are two ways we can do this. First is changing the way web pages are coded.

Websites automatically grab lots of information about the people using them. This data must be stored, processed, and often isn’t used in a way which helps the business gathering it. By changing this process and ensuring code is written in a way that means websites don’t repeatedly collect invaluable information is a good starting point to greener websites.

Secondly, businesses should give users the ability to toggle between a normal view of the internet and a low bandwidth version. Low bandwidth webpages require less processing power, lessening the amount of carbon used by services. A low carbon view of a website has no pictures, videos, and no decoration. By providing a switch on all webpages which offers the option to see both views, users can choose their own journey, and make an active contribution to offsetting their carbon footprint.

It’s important to note, we can’t force low carbon websites on people. Many people learn better through pictures, images, diagrams, and videos – they’re important. We must protect inclusivity and ensure all websites work for everyone. Allowing users the choice over their preferred way of learning will positively impact climate change.

Small changes can make a big difference

The influence of organizations making these small changes could be vast. For example, a simple calculation from a website trial showed that a better designed website could reduce the carbon footprint of a webpage anywhere between 30% and 70%.

While these savings are positive for the Earth and society, organisations can also benefit from environmentally friendly websites, with reduced demand on electricity and air conditioning systems providing potentially significant cost savings. It’s time then for businesses to start thinking about ensuring green websites are a core part of their sustainability strategies.

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Carl Johnson is Director of Digital Contact at SSCL Defence.