Over 50% of the world’s population now have internet access and the average time people spend online each day is 6 hours and 42 minutes. As our connectivity increases, so too does its energy use. Some analysts predict that by 2025, global communication technologies will be responsible for more carbon emissions than any country except China, India and the United States.
To give just one example of where those emissions are coming from: the average amount of data that’s transferred from a server when you look at a webpage on your browser has gone up threefold in the past decades for desktops, and tenfold for mobiles.
We can easily get the mistaken impression, when texting a photo or video, circulating a report or downloading a map, that we’re using fewer resources now than we were in the past. The term ‘cloud’, referring to on-demand data storage or computing power, is particularly misleading. ‘Cloud’ sounds like something intangible, diffuse and fluffy that just hangs around up in the ether somewhere benignly, waiting to be made use of.
However, as Anne Quito wrote in 2018:
“Despite the notion that the internet is a “cloud,” it actually relies on millions of physical servers in data centers around the world, which are connected with miles of undersea cables, switches, and routers, all requiring a lot of energy to run.”
Moreover, the servers are built with decidedly solid and angular semiconductor chips, partly constructed from non-terribly-fluffy rare earth metals. And the electricity that powers them is generated for the most part by fossil fuel ‘slaves’, to use Buckminster Fuller’s term.
At the moment the slaves seem – to those of us in wealthy countries at least – to be pleasantly quiet and compliant, so we don’t generally even notice they’re there. We don’t see the energy that’s required to power vast ‘server farms’ (another curious phrase – but I won’t go there now) or to move information around the planet.
What’s striking also is the sheer inanity of much of this energy use. Precious energy is wasted because of unnecessarily large files or complicated coding.
Most people are probably aware that image files, as a rule, are bigger than plain text files. Yet, as the Web Bloat Calculator website explains, one of the weird things about the way websites have evolved is that their text is frequently so overloaded with superfluous (hidden) coding that they actually consume more energy than they would if the pages were presented solely in image form (ie, if a screenshot was taken of the webpage, and that was what was displayed when people looked up the webpage, rather than the original text).
Such code bloat tends to build up in layers over the years and can lead to frenetic, and almost completely meaningless, exchanges of information between servers and browsers. (Even if you aren’t a website developer, I recommend taking a look at an article on code bloat by Maciej Cegłowski, which manages to be both chilling and very amusing.)
From Ceglowski’s article I also learnt that online ads – which can use up to 79% of mobile data bandwidth, according to a 2016 study – are scarily dependent on financial speculation. It reminds me a lot of fracking, and made me reflect on how quickly the whole edifice could just collapse.
In Feasta we’ve been inspired by the innovative work of Kris de Decker on his website, Low Tech Magazine. Kris de Decker launched a ‘low tech’ version of his website which is run off a solar-powered server and has an indicator to tell you how much charge is left on its battery. It uses a design that reduces energy consumption by minimising the number of times that visitors’s browsers need to exchange information with the server (for the technically-minded, it’s a static site rather than a dynamic one), and by using simplified versions of images.
If you’re interested in the detail behind this, there’s lots of useful information here (and the comments section at the end is as interesting as the article itself).
Of course we need to keep in mind that reducing a website’s energy use won’t in itself guarantee a reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions and better conservation of resources. There also needs to be an absolute limit on fossil fuel energy consumption, because otherwise there’s a strong risk that the fossil fuels saved by improved efficiency will end up just getting used elsewhere (the Jevons effect). This is part of why claims by Facebook and others that they are going green are misleading. It’s also a major reason why the Feasta climate group strongly advocates capping fossil fuel production at source.
Nonetheless, while we’re waiting for that to happen, there seems no harm in taking some steps to reduce our own website’s energy footprint.
We’ve considered doing something similar to the Low Tech site with the Feasta site, and it’s on our list as a potential future project. However, since we have over a thousand posts on our site it would be a huge undertaking, and we’re also unsure if it would be a good idea to switch to a static site as that would make it harder for readers to comment on posts. Moreover, we use images a lot and weren’t sure if we wanted to take the Low Tech approach on that (which involves changing the colour balance).
Like so many decisions, it’s a balancing act. However we found out that there were some easier steps that could be taken in the short term which would nonetheless substantially cut our website’s energy use. So we decided that for the moment we would instead switch to a less-energy intensive template for our WordPress-based site and make some other adjustments, such as changing the format of the newer images to shrink their file size.
I do wonder how much audience the images on the Feasta site bring in, and whether the trade-off in terms of energy use is worth it. It’s true that things like graphs would be very hard to get across any other way, but perhaps some of the other images aren’t worth the bandwidth.
At least it’s possible to cut down on their energy use, though. I was surprised (and a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed earlier) how much difference a simple change in image format can make – I used to always use .png format images and now I use .jpeg, and they’re often a third or a quarter of the size in terms of KB, with no noticeable difference in quality.
We made the switchover to the new template in January of this year, so have had time now to gather some statistics on its effects. We’re pleased to see that the average page loading speed of the homepage (as measured by Google PageSpeed) has gone down by more than two thirds, despite the fact that it still has the same number of images. Site visits have increased by thirty-six percent, probably because of the quicker page loading speed and the fact that the new site is also far more mobile-friendly than the old one.
For anyone who’s interested, the WordPress template we’re using is (appropriately enough) called Page Speed, and was designed by Satish Gandham, a Mumbai-based developer who focusses on creating lightweight website templates that can nonetheless include plenty of images and other visual information. There’s a free version available here.
If you’re interested in the technical side of this you might also enjoy the Web Bloat Score Calculator, as well as the tongue-in-cheek explanatory text for it: https://www.webbloatscore.com . (We did well on that one too ;-))
This is a work in progress. One thing we haven’t really looked into yet is the possibility of Feasta’s switching ISP to a 100% renewably-powered one. That’s not a perfect solution obviously, and it wouldn’t protect the Feasta site from systemic collapse, but, as with the image format changes, it would probably help a little.
We’d love to hear from anyone else who is exploring this realm and has comments or tips to share.
Caroline Whyte has been involved with Feasta since 2002. She studied ecological economics at Mälardalen University in Sweden, writing a masters thesis on the relationship between central banking and sustainability. She contributed to Feasta’s books Fleeing Vesuvius and Sharing for Survival. Along with four other Feasta climate group members she helped to launch the CapGlobalCarbon initative at the COP-21 summit in Paris in December 2015. In February 2017 she participated in the World Basic Income conference in Manchester, discussing the potential for climate action to contribute to reducing poverty and inequality worldwide. She is also an active member of Feasta’s currency group. She lives in central France, from where she edits the Feasta website.