1. What is a website carbon footprint?
  2. Environmentally sustainable web design

Understanding and reducing your website's carbon footprint

Studies indicate that the environmental footprint of the IT sector rivals that of the aviation industry, which accounts for approximately 2–4% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the growing prominence of environmental sustainability as a pressing issue, our understanding of the digital carbon footprint remains either limited or non-existent.

In many cases, it is practically impossible to eliminate the environmental impact of our digital lives, and so being aware, and having a knowledgeable holistic approach to both developing and using digital outputs, can make a meaningful difference. Adopting a mindful approach can also empower your brand and demonstrate your commitment to making the world a better place. In this article, we’ll dive into the key facts that concern digital sustainability and how we can begin developing a more environmentally conscious approach to digital corporate communications.

At Jones and Palmer, we have also committed to an exciting challenge organised by the Umbraco Content Management System team in Odense, Denmark. This will see us review the current impact of our own website, and then explore as many improvements as possible to demonstrate how we can affect our carbon footprint online.

What is a website carbon footprint?

Digital is physical. Every byte is supported by an atom. Every single action in digital costs the Earth energy. Turn the electricity off and you turn digital off. Digital is demanding an increasing share of the Earth’s energy and resources and is a major contributor to the generation of toxic trash
Gerry McGovern Author of "World Wide Waste" View source

Although the internet exists in a virtual realm, its effects on the real world and the environment are tangible. A website’s carbon footprint mostly comes down to energy consumption associated with storing and transferring data around the world wide web, as well as the energy required to consume this data. It can even extend to the effectiveness of both UI and UX, which may determine the extent to which information can be easily accessible online, affecting its efficiency and, therefore, its energy consumption.

Essentially, the process of accessing digital information online requires electrical power at every stage. From powering data centres to network equipment like routers, switches, and cables to send the information across the internet. Every action by the user on a website often translates into requesting data from a server, which as a result implies energy consumption in various forms. The weight and complexity of this data, as well as the scale and demand for it, can affect the carbon footprint.

By considering the potential environmental impact of our digital solutions, we not only contribute to a greener internet but also discover that low-carbon websites often enhance user friendliness. There are several things we can consider when managing a website’s carbon footprint, such as partnering with environmentally friendly hosting providers (such as Microsoft Azure), opting to utilise CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) for more efficient data transfer, streamlining a website's page weights, optimising user journeys, and much more. Just as using less water in a shower leads to substantial savings over time, being mindful of data consumption adds up to a more energy efficient and eco-friendly use of the internet.

Based on estimates, when we transfer 1GB of data, we generate approximately 3kg of CO2 emissions. This is comparable to driving a car for about 7 miles (11.2km). When you consider this on a global scale, with billions of people engaging in similar activities, the environmental impact becomes substantial.

Environmentally sustainable web design

Energy consumption

Designing an eco-conscious website begins with prioritising energy efficiency from the outset. However, crafting a sustainable solution doesn't necessarily entail making extensive compromises or requiring significant investments, be they financial or time related. It often begins with a basic awareness and a commitment to making conscientious choices. These small decisions, when aggregated, can significantly reduce your website's carbon footprint, promoting a more environmentally healthy digital presence.

The primary factor influencing immediate energy efficiency lies in selecting the appropriate hosting provider. Around 60–70% of the total energy consumption in the process of browsing the internet is attributed to the operation of data centres and hosting. This includes the energy required to power the servers, cooling systems, and other infrastructure in data centres. Cloud hosting suppliers such as Microsoft currently run on a large percentage of renewable energy. Microsoft’s target is to switch to 100% renewable energy use by 2025.

By opting for cloud hosting from providers like Microsoft, we not only power our digital solutions with green energy but also gain additional advantages, such as enhanced server utilisation. This means achieving comparable productivity with fewer servers, resulting in reduced electricity consumption on a larger scale. This efficiency is made possible by the large-scale data centres operated by companies like Microsoft, who have a vested interest in optimising IT efficiency, which would be impractical to achieve with on-premises hosting solutions.

By 2030, we will remove more carbon than we emit, setting us on a path to remove by 2050 all the carbon we have ever emitted into the atmosphere since our founding in 1975.
Microsoft View source

Utilising Content Delivery Networks is an effective strategy for conscientiously managing your website's environmental impact. CDNs utilise a network of servers dispersed globally, responding to user requests from their nearest geographic location. This ensures that a cached version of your website, and its content, is available worldwide, served to users from the closest server. Consequently, this minimises the distance data must travel, resulting in quicker transfer times, reduced energy consumption, and subsequently lower carbon emissions. Beyond environmental benefits, CDNs enhance website performance and speed, further decreasing the carbon footprint by reducing user wait times and associated energy usage.

Another key aspect of optimising energy efficiency is considering page weights. This pertains to the various forms and formats of data, and overlooking this can result in unnecessary energy consumption. This encompasses content, particularly videos and images, which, if not properly optimised for the web, can lead to excessive data transfer and slower website performance. Conducting regular content audits and updates aids in streamlining the content, ensuring that outdated or non-value-added material doesn't unnecessarily traverse the internet. Additionally, this extends to the website's construction and underlying coding architecture. If the website is structured in a way that demands extensive processing time, or compels the server to execute code that doesn't enhance the output, it can result in an excess of generated data and consequently, unnecessary energy consumption.

Umbraco websites migrated to the new .NET versions are at least 50% more efficient, leading to a significant reduction in CO2 emissions.
Umbraco Umbraco Impact Report 2022 View source
Optimising digital efficiency

Digital sustainability goes beyond just the consumption of physical resources. To adopt a comprehensive approach, we must also evaluate how effective a product is in delivering an efficient user experience. This involves not only assessing the user journey's ease of accessing information but also considering the user interface (UI) and how information is presented. Factors such as colours, contrast, and content type significantly influence readability and information accessibility. This, in turn, impacts not only the user's cognitive processing speed but also, from a sustainability standpoint, affects the energy needed to display the information. For instance, various colours demand varying levels of energy to illuminate screens.

Web developers building sites in dark mode, or setting sites to default to dark mode, can save up to 47% of power consumption.
Umbraco Umbraco Impact Report 2022 View source

Utilising Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to enhance user experience by customising website content and features to match individual user preferences. This leads to increased efficiency in our digital solutions, reducing the need for manual data searching and resulting in a more streamlined, environmentally conscious outcome. Moreover, AI's automation capabilities can positively impact the environment. Whether it involves streamlining manual tasks or employing AI-driven performance monitoring to swiftly address issues, it ultimately reduces downtime and minimises resource wastage.