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Building Climate-Friendly Websites

It takes an alarming amount of energy to power the world’s websites. Here are some ways site owners can cut back on internet pollution.

The internet—including data centers, user devices, and telecommunications networks—uses an immense amount of electricity. In fact, the internet consumes about the same amount of energy as the entire United Kingdom. The Sustainable Web Manifesto states that, if the internet was a country, it would be the world’s fourth largest polluter.

According to Wired, the more complex a website is, the more energy it requires to load—and the greater its climate impact. So, websites that feature numerous videos and photos, custom fonts, and JavaScript use more energy than their simplistic, low-tech counterparts.

Digital Unsustainability

The annual CO2 emissions of YouTube is a whopping 700 billion grams, according to PCMag’s ranking of the worst websites for carbon emissions. As well, Reddit.com uses 5.6 grams of C02 per visit. In comparison, the website you’re on now produces only 0.08 grams of CO2 each time someone visits. The Reddit number is alarming when one considers that Reddit.com receives 1.7 billion visits per year.

There are over a billion websites in the world, and a new website is built every three seconds, according to Forbes. The Earth is certainly in peril if the internet continues to consume energy at its current pace.

“The internet is essentially the largest coal-fired machine on the entire planet.”

—Jack Amend, co-founder, Web Neutral Project

Carbon Emissions and Planet Earth

It might help to take a step back and remind ourselves why CO2 emissions are so dangerous. As carbon dioxide gasses blanket the Earth, they trap the sun’s heat, which leads to global warming and climate change. This poses many risks to humans, and to most other forms of life on our planet. Climate change is bringing more frequent and severe storms. It’s causing our oceans to warm and rise, and is contributing to an alarming increase in droughts and wildfires. All such environmental disasters (and global warming in general) has led to the endangerment and loss of animal species. Finally, the warmer our planet gets, the harder it will be for us to grow enough food to feed the Earth’s expanding human population.

global warming wildfire burning internet pollution
Photo by Matt Palmer / Unsplash

The world is now warming faster than at any point in recorded history. Clearly, all of us connected to the internet in some way should be doing what we can to reduce our carbon footprints, from the biggest e-commerce sites down to personal blog/site owners, like me.

Problematic Sustainability Strategies

According to experts, there are many steps site owners can take to build climate-friendly websites, and to reduce energy use. However, some recommended tactics seem better than others.

In The Conversation, Jeff Kettle, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow discusses the merits of websites that are powered by solar energy. Pointing to a few sites that are 100% solar powered, Kettle notes that “their environmentally friendly, responsive web design strategies—including reduced-colour images and default typefaces – allow their websites to run more efficiently based upon real-time assessment of available sunlight.” What happens on cloudy days? The websites become low-resolution. “They could even revert to a basic, text-only format when the clouds have truly closed in and power is particularly low,” says Kettle.

While some businesses might appreciate the reduced energy costs of running their sites on solar power alone, it’s not a realistic solution for everyone. Few business owners would be satisfied with a stripped-down, low-resolution or text-only website. Imagine one of the world’s 26 billion e-commerce sites relying on grainy, reduced-color images to sell their products. 

Website Images and Videos

In his discussion of energy-conservation solutions, Tom Greenwood, Managing Director of Wholegrain Digital, asks website owners to carefully consider the use of images and video. The more images that appear on a website, the more data needs to be transferred, and the more energy is used for that process. Video, Greenwood says, is even worse in terms of being data- and processing-intensive. Environmentally-friendly websites would therefore include very few image and video assets.

“As with images, ask yourself if videos are really necessary.”

— Tom Greenwood, Wholegrain Digital

Scaling back on the numbers of images and videos used on a website is also, unfortunately, problematic for many businesses. According to Forbes, videos can increase time spent on a webpage by 88%. While site visitors spend less than six seconds looking at written content on a webpage, they spend six minutes on pages with video. This duration is an important consideration for businesses looking to engage their audience, and keep them on their site. Most businesses and website owners wouldn’t want to intentionally decrease the amount of time that a customer spends visiting, by eliminating engaging content like pictures and videos.

reddit.com homepage screenshot worst website for CO2 emissions per visit
With a focus on photos and videos, Reddit is the worst website for CO2 emissions per visit.

Decreasing Internet Pollution

While cutting out images and video might not always be practical, Greenwood’s article notes many other ways for web owners to reduce their carbon output. The five solutions that follow are all relatively easy to implement—even for small site owners:

  1. Successful SEO. Optimizing for search engine rankings helps people find what they want quickly and easily, resulting in less time browsing and less energy use.
  2. Good UX. A good user experience reduces the amount of energy wasted navigating to pages that don’t serve the correct purpose.
  3. Less JavaScript. “JS” adds file weight to a web page, thus increasing the amount of processing required by a user’s device.
  4. Optimized Images. Images that are compressed and sized correctly take a lot less energy to load.
  5. Blocking Bots. According to Akshat Choudhary, founder of Blogvault, blocking computer bots (automated programs) reduces energy consumption. Says Choudhary, “Bots often use up 50% of resources such as processing and bandwidth.
data center server room web hosting climate friendly websites
Data center of web servers. AI-generated image / Jen Gilbart

For those who wish to build environmentally-friendly websites, the most important consideration is very likely the choice of a web hosting company. Carbon emissions can be easily reduced when your web host is powered by renewable energy. One green web host, GreenGeeks, puts three times the amount of power it consumes back into the grid through renewable energy certificates. Therefore, careful selection of web hosting services can have a big impact on energy efficiency, and reduced carbon emissions.

A Climate-Friendly Future

In 2019, Wholegrain Digital launched the Sustainable Web Manifesto, which individuals and companies can sign to pledge their commitment to create a more sustainable internet. However, as of June 7, 2023, the Manifesto had only received 2,877 signatures. That’s not nearly enough. We all need to support and prioritize sustainable web design, for the sake of our climate, and our collective future.

Further Reading:

Chan, D. (2021, March 22). Your website is killing the planet. Wired UK. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/internet-carbon-footprint

Cohen, J. (2021, May 21). These Are the Worst (and Best) Websites for Carbon Emissions. PCMAG. https://www.pcmag.com/news/these-are-the-worst-and-best-websites-for-carbon-emissions

Greenwood, T. (2019, October 23). 17 ways to make your website more energy efficient. Wholegrain Digital. https://www.wholegraindigital.com/blog/website-energy-efficiency/

Gurgel, A. (2020, September 11). Carbon offsets. MIT Climate Portal. https://climate.mit.edu/explainers/carbon-offsets

Haan, K. (2023, February 14). Top Website Statistics for 2023 – Forbes Advisor. Www.forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/business/software/website-statistics/

Kettle, J. (2021, June 9). The internet consumes extraordinary amounts of energy. Here’s how we can make it more sustainable. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-internet-consumes-extraordinary-amounts-of-energy-heres-how-we-can-make-it-more-sustainable-160639

United Nations. (2020). Causes and Effects of Climate Change. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/causes-effects-climate-changeWebsite Carbon Calculator | How is your website impacting the planet? (n.d.). Website Carbon Calculator. https://www.websitecarbon.com/

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