Web Design and Its Carbon Footprint

Size Matters

Carbon footprint infographic.

What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the amount of emissions of certain gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) that we generate by actions that burn energy. The World Health Organization defines a carbon footprint as “a measure of the impact your activities have on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced through the burning of fossil fuels and is expressed as a weight of CO2 emissions produced in tonnes.Each time we gas up our car, turn on the air conditioner, or use a washing machine we are increasing our carbon footprint. These greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere keep the earth warm, but too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere leads to global warming. We will talk more about global warming and its impact later on.

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Web Design and Coal Mining

Have you ever logged into a website and considered it’s carbon footprint? If you are anything like me, it was never even a consideration. According to Jack Amend, of the Web Neutral Project, “The internet is essentially the largest coal-fired machine on the entire planet”.


Photo of coal mining excavator.

Wait what?!?!? Let’s give you some context here…


Using coal as an energy source can be considered the gold standard for pollution. Not only is it dangerous to miners (we will save that for a different post), but it is harmful to the environment in a number of ways. In order for coal to be used for energy it first has to be mined. Once the coal has been extracted it must be processed. Once it is processed it then has to be burned for energy. Each step of the process includes emissions and/or waste that is harmful to the environment.



Now let’s get back to the topic at hand – Websites and the Carbon Footprint

Are you building or redesigning a website? There are many ways that you can practice a more sustainable form of web design. This creator walks the viewer through steps that she took to reduce the carbon footprint of her own website.



Web Design and its Carbon Footprint

The average website produces 1.76 grams of carbon dioxide for every page view. 

According to Investopedia, the top 5 countries for carbon dioxide emissions are 

  1. China
  2. United States
  3. India
  4. Russia
  5. Japan

According to U.S. News the top 10 countries for technological expertise are

  1. Japan
  2. South Korea
  3. China
  4. United States
  5. Germany
  6. Singapore
  7. United Kingdom
  8. Russia
  9. Switzerland
  10. Canada

As you can see 4 out of the 5 countries with the highest CO2 emissions are also the most technologically savvy. 


Photo with quote.

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What does this mean?

How can I enact change?

Just as with any practice or major cultural shift it all starts somewhere. Each web designer, whether personally or professionally…whether its for a meg-corporation or the barber shop down the block. We can all make a difference. There are many resources available to help each of us navigate this complex monster called a carbon footprint. We have YouTube, LinkedIn Learning, a number of websites that provide tips and best practices.

…and of course the app that teaches us all the latest recipes and trends… TikTok.


Illustration related to digital sustainability.

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Best Practices

After scouring the internet, we’ve compiled best practices for sustainable web design. 

  1. Design a more efficient website
    1. Incorporating Dieter Ram’s 10 Commandments of Design will be a useful tool to keep you in check with your efficiency. You want to make sure that your website is simple and has just the right amount of content, graphics and color to keep the user interested and engaged without ruining your carbon footprint.
  2. Join a community of other sustainability minded people.
    1. Finding like minded people that share the same interests, values and even level of web design abilities will provide you with a support network. You can find communities within professional communities and/or organizations, Facebook groups and other social media platforms.
  3. Optimize!
    1. By optimizing your website’s performance, you can achieve two tasks at the same time. Optimizing not only improves the user experience but it can reduce the carbon footprint!
  4. Read a book
    1. A number of books have been published on this topic, below are a few of the more popular ones:
      1. Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood
      2. Sustainable Web Ecosystem Design by Gregory O’Toole
      3. Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick
      4. World Wide Waste by Gerry McGovern
  5. Green hosting
    1. A number of companies offer green web hosting services

My homepage for this website tested cleaner than 66% of web pages that were tested on Website Carbon

However the webpage that you are currently reading is dirtier than 65% of web pages tested. YIKES! I have a lot of work to do. Time to implement the best practices listed above! This shows how important it is to continue sustainable design elements throughout your entire website.


The Big Picture

Now that we’ve discussed ways you can make an impact, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture.


Global Warming

I hate to insert gloom and doom here, but the reason that a carbon footprint is so important is because global warming is impacting our environment in ways that has lasting effects on our planet. If we each make steps toward reducing our carbon footprints we can slow down the impact of climate change. It may seem like digital media and communications in general would not be a significant contributor. According to Climate Change News, “billions of internet-connected devices could produce 3.5% of global emissions within ten years and 14% by 2040” additionally, “the communications industry could use 20% of all the world’s electricity by 2025.”


Hope for the future

According to Dr. Anders Andrae an expert in energy efficiency and emission reduction for Huawei Technologies, “Under a best case scenario, there will be massive continuous improvements of power saving, renewable energy will become the norm and the explosive growth in demand for data will slow.”

As mentioned earlier, the United States has one of the highest emissions ratings among other countries, but the good news is that the U.S. is taking real steps towards a transition to clean energy. Every step that we each take whether its as an individual or an organization can lead to real change. 

Greenpeace put it best when they said that hope is a natural resource too.


References

In addition to the many links included in this post, the references below were also used as sources.

Admin. (2017, December 12). “Tsunami of data” could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025. Climate Home News. https://www.climatechangenews.com/2017/12/11/tsunami-data-consume-one-fifth-global-electricity-2025/#:~:text=The%20communications%20industry%20could%20use,internet%2Dconnected%20devices%20grows%20exponentially.

ANDRAE Anders. (n.d.). ITU. https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-T/Workshops-and-Seminars/gsw/201309/Pages/ANDRAEAnders.aspx

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

Deadly power plants? Study fuels debate. (2004, June 9). NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna5174391

Joshua Pearce, Emily Prehoda. Potential Lives Saved by Replacing Coal with Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production in the U.S.. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2017, 80, pp.710-715.

Simple Tips to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint – Sustainability at Georgetown University. (2019, November 26). Sustainability at Georgetown University. https://sustainability.georgetown.edu/community-engagement/things-you-can-do