Carbon Footprinting the Web

11/06/2017 02:02 pm ET

This piece was co-authored by 2017 Echoing Green Fellow Jack Amend and Matthew Reid, co-founders of the Web Neutral Project. Web Neutral Project calculates and neutralizes the carbon footprint of websites, applications, and other digital products in an effort to mitigate the effects of climate change.

There’s plenty to do online. We read articles, research health-related symptoms, entertain, and even connect with friends and family. For the average user in the U.S., the internet is integrated into daily life somewhat seamlessly. Though accessing the web is a seemingly simple activity, the internet’s inner workings are invisible to users who often don’t realize that their digital habits can harm the environment. A daily activity such as watching a favorite show in a web browser may seem harmless and certainly doesn’t conjure a negative environmental impact. But the truth is, “digital” doesn’t equal environmentally friendly.

Most human activities–including all that online surfing–have some sort of environmental impact. While estimates vary, most sources agree that the internet accounts for about 10 percent of the world’s electricity consumption (which requires the burning of fossil fuels). This creates a carbon footprint that is about 50 percent greater than the footprint of the global aviation industry–other major offenders include electricity and heat production, agriculture, and industry. To be sure, the internet has fundamentally transformed societies in many positive ways, allowing us unprecedented access to knowledge and entertainment and greatly increasing our ability to connect and communicate. The challenge is, even with commitments to utilize more renewable energy from internet giants like Apple and Facebook, much of the internet will continue to be powered by coal unless something changes. Internet carbon emissions are slated to get even worse: global internet traffic is expected to triple by 2020 with more than a billion additional people gaining access to the internet during this timeframe.

How Does the Web Pollute?

Upon visiting a web page, data is transferred from the website’s data-storage servers, through the network infrastructure, to the user’s device. The servers, the network, and the devices all require electricity. Unfortunately for most of this internet activity, the electricity use burns fossil fuels which emit carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Web Neutral Project is a digital sustainability initiative founded to address this issue and work toward minimizing the environmental impact of the internet.

How Data is Accessed on the Internet
Web Neutral Project
How Data is Accessed on the Internet

How Can We Understand the Web’s Footprint?

Given the complexity and invisibility of the internet’s inner workings and the huge variability in size and use of different websites, it’s hard to know how big of an environmental impact a website has just by visiting it. That’s why Web Neutral Project created an algorithm to expose a website’s footprint. The size of a website, its quantity of users, and the energy it takes to transfer data on the site all influence the amount of electricity used to power site activity. To put this into context, Web Neutral Project calculates that for a website of average size and user stats, around 10,000 page views per month emits more than 4,700 lbs. of CO2e in one year. According to the EPA’s GHG equivalency calculator, that’s like driving a car 5,109 miles.

A carbon footprint is an estimate of the emissions resulting from an activity over a certain period of time. While there is no industry standard for calculating carbon emissions, it’s critical that we err on the side of caution when measuring the carbon footprint of the internet as a contributor to climate change. This means taking into account the full lifecycle of the data transfer process that happens when we surf. At Web Neutral Project, we include emissions from data centers, network infrastructure, and the end-user devices while also taking into account page size and user analytics. By using studies that are pessimistic when it comes to the amount of energy it requires to transfer data, we can illustrate the urgency of the problem.

Why Calculate a Website’s Carbon Footprint?

It might seem like neutralizing a single website’s footprint is a drop in the bucket. Just like littering, individual impacts accumulate to create a larger problem. It will take collective action to solve this one. The digital sustainability movement, alongside organizations like MightyBytes and the Green Web Foundation, is growing. The web is only a portion of the complex ecosystem we know as the internet. However, it is where the average person interacts with the internet which makes it the ideal place to begin talking about the internet’s environmental impacts. This is a difficult issue to address. The burden falls not on the user, but on those who build and operate the web. Website owners need to take responsibility for their digital footprints. As users, we have considerable power to influence. Support green websites, ask your favorite sites about their impact, and encourage them to calculate and neutralize their footprint.

This article is part of a series that showcases leaders’ voices committed to social and environmental progress. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the authors. Echoing Green provides social entrepreneurs with a two-year Fellowship, seed-stage funding, and strategic support. Learn more: echoinggreen.org.

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