We are all aware that our planet's capacity is being put to the test. Many industrial sectors have their own standards and guidelines concerning energy efficiency, and companies are complying with these in their efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. However, little thought is given to the carbon footprint of the internet – how big is it at the moment and what are the forecasts for forthcoming years? As a customer, you have the right to demand greener online services, and a user-friendly, fast and mobile-friendly website is also more environmentally friendly. Why not use page sizes as a way of measuring the success of your online service?

The internet is such an integral part of everyday life that few people even give a thought to the carbon footprint of their own digital actions. Every Google search, email or page load has an effect on the Earth's atmosphere. And then there are the computers that you do not get round to turning off at night, or the mobile phone that spends hours on charge so there will be enough energy for this evening's Pokemon Go meet.

What is the carbon footprint of the internet at the moment?

This topic is significant because the carbon footprint of information technology (such as the internet, streaming and cloud services) has got wildly out of hand: it is already 830 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is 2 per cent of all of the carbon dioxide emissions in the world. This may sound like a small percentage, but it is the same as the aviation sector, which began addressing the problem years ago.

Carbon dioxide emissions are expected to double by 2020.

In the near future, carbon dioxide emissions will increase dramatically as the internet is expected to be one of the world's fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions. Although digitalisation and the industrial internet are only just picking up pace, there is already talk of the internet of NO things, where the internet will be completely integrated into our surroundings. We want digital services in increasing quantities, which is why the current level of carbon dioxide emissions is expected to double by 2020.

If the internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest in terms of consumption, according to a report by Greenpeace. This overall energy consumption may sound astonishing at first, but the internet is used by almost 3.5 billion people around the world, which is more than half of the world's population. And when all of these people perform various digital actions every day, enormous amounts of data is moved around.

How does the internet leave a carbon footprint?

In the simplest terms, surfing any website causes energy consumption, and carbon dioxide emissions are created when this energy is generated. The carbon footprint of an online service is made up of servers, hardware and network connections. The larger a website is, the more it burdens the environment. The energy used by an online service is determined according to how much data is transferred when a user visits the site. Servers operate night and day, and every new page load causes the server to do work.

The networks that transfer data from data centres to computers, mobile phones and other devices also consume energy, as do the devices used for surfing. Mobile data connections (3G/4G) pollute up to five times more than wired internet connections. Many of the world's largest online services have addressed this challenge and invested in energy-efficient data centres that use renewable energy. Google advises its users to reduce their harmful environmental impact.

Companies' own choices can influence the environmental friendliness of their own websites, but the same applies to users: 

Why are environmentally friendly online services profitable for companies?

In terms of designing and developing digital services, we are in the wild west, as there are no requirements concerning energy efficiency. The end product is a mixture of the designer's ambitions and the customer's wishes. Short load times increase visitor numbers and improve conversions. Despite this, web pages have increased in size by an average of 2.5 times in less than five years. The internet has become faster and widened its reach, enabling ever larger images to be used, more videos, beautiful web fonts and impressive CSS animations. 

A website designed in accordance with best practices in the sector will also be the most energy efficient.

Healthy is bad, impressive is expensive and environmentally friendly websites are boring – nonsense! This time, the good news is that a website designed in accordance with best practices in the sector will also be the most energy efficient. So forget the planet for a moment and concentrate on your company's needs.

The following is a list of things you are likely to want in your online service:

  • I want to stand out
    Is it difficult to find unique pictures in image banks? Are your products or services not concrete or sexy enough to be photographed? Almost every online service has a large, impressive picture, and the title is either above or below this. Next to this, there will typically be a call-to-action button. So what should you do if you do not have any pictures? I challenge you – my customer – to be different! If the picture has no clear function then forget about the large hero images, generic image bank pictures and play around with typography, colours and space.
  • I want my website to be user-friendly
    Accessibility is a basic requirement for a good user experience, which is why responsiveness is usually essential. The average user will leave your site within 2–4 seconds if they cannot find the content they are looking for, so users should be offered relevant information in the quickest and easiest way. Sometimes mobile users may be looking for different things than visitors using desktop computers. And occasionally, the customer's terminology may differ from the service provider's professional jargon. Users should not be obstructed on their journey by links that are difficult to distinguish, unclear terminology, confused information architecture or excessive visual junk.
  • I want my website to be easy to find
    Did you know that Google Adwords keywords can be used to make your website easier to find and decrease its carbon footprint? In addition, search engine optimisation (SEO) enables your users to find the content they are looking for more quickly, both via search engines and on the site itself. This will save your users from wasting time and clicks, thereby also saving on unnecessary page loads. Installing analytics on an online service provides irreplaceable help when an online service is developed to make it more user friendly. Analytics provide us with hints of which pages and functions users cannot find.
  • I want my website to perform well
    People's internet habits and devices are changing in a way that requires websites to be fast and perform well. Companies aiming for an international online presence should bear in mind the devices used in the target country, the network speed and the price of data. Performance will improve when the necessity of large elements is called into question. Next time, ask your designer for a new, lighter solution to replace your old, heavy and uninformative image carousel.

The matters described above can help a website to be simultaneously user-oriented, long-lasting and energy-efficient. So what would you say if we set a kilobyte limit (performance budget) as one of the goals for your website? Demand speed and light sites, and business will blossom and the world will be saved!

Watch Patrick Clair's short video on Vimeo: "How Green Is Your Internet?":



Noora Iso-Kuusela avatar