It’s not groundbreaking to say that online activity has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Around 63% of the world’s population is online, compared with only 8% in 2001. Although digital usage will inevitably continue to rise exponentially, there remains little awareness of the hidden carbon emissions produced by daily scrolling and its damaging impact on the planet.
Every activity performed online comes with a cost. Each time an internet-enabled device is used, a few grams of carbon dioxide are emitted due to the energy needed to run devices and power the networks. In fact, carbon emissions generated by the internet, devices and systems that support it account for 2% of the world’s carbon emissions. To put this into perspective, that’s around as much energy as the global airline industry (2.1%). What’s more, that number is expected to explode from 2% to 14% by 2040.
In addition to usage, one of the reasons for this increase is our burgeoning global venture into Web3. Tech tycoon Elon Musk might think it “sounds like BS” still, this year, the push for a blockchain-powered future has dominated tech conferences and social media chatter. With all the talk of blockchain-based tech like cryptocurrency and digital assets like NFTs, the metaverse, AR and VR – it may seem simply a game of buzzword bingo, but the adoption of Web3 is in progress. It’s even forced major tech companies to assemble teams dedicated to Web3. It will also have an extreme impact on the environment.
Cryptocurrency and blockchain rely on massive banks of processors to handle the technological workloads that enable their decentralised operation. These power-hungry devices have caused such a stir that countries like Sweden are apparently looking at outlawing large-scale mining operations. Keep in mind that this level of impact is already being caused by just the relatively minuscule portion of online transactions represented by blockchain-based technologies such as cryptocurrency and NFTs. For example, NFTs – run mainly on the Ethereum blockchain – annual energy consumption is comparable to that of the Netherlands. So imagine the kind of footprint that could be expected if the majority of online pursuits moved through Web3.
Fortunately for the earth, the second most popular cryptocurrency, Ethereum, which is worth US$244 billion, is taking a greener path. After years of planning, the global developers who govern Ether’s open-source ecosystem have just pivoted to a new management system that will slash its carbon emissions by 99.95%. Known as the “merge,” the high-wire balancing act effectively transforms Ethereum overnight. One veteran crypto reporter compared this feat to a motorist on a super-highway upgrading their gas-guzzling car to an electric vehicle – without ever stopping.
Of course, there’s a catch. Many crypto-miners are likely to redirect their tech to produce other currencies – producing scant net benefit to the climate. Some miners have even declared their intention to keep mining Ether the old way on their own. So, we are far from out of the woods yet. Not to mention, Bitcoin (the worlds’s largest cryptocurrency) has a climate impact greater than that of gold mining and on the level of rearing cattle for meat.
We have to all do our best to take responsibility for the amount of energy the internet consumes, and that starts now. Digital Carbon footprints might not be the first concern when businesses build or refresh their website, and it’s undoubtedly not the only answer to solving digital’s environmental impact, but when every byte of data counts, there is more we can all do in this space.
Obviously, this is reductionist. Visuals are a key feature in the digital world. In an online space flooded with content, we gravitate toward compelling videos and images. Equally, we like to consume content quickly, preferring to watch something rather than read it. The next step, then, is for website design and developers to encourage cutting down energy-draining features while ensuring digital interfaces don’t become less attractive. Not such an easy task.
Another way to reduce a website’s carbon footprint is to ensure that it is correctly cared for and managed. Websites that go uncared for can quickly drain resources, so actions like optimising servers, keeping software updated and performing housekeeping activities across your tech stack can drastically reduce a website’s carbon footprint over time.
Ultimately too – they make for better websites. By carefully planning customer journeys, we can reduce the number of pages a visitor needs to load, which not only reduces energy consumption but makes for a better user experience. Additionally, by continuing to optimise and refine a website, you’re simultaneously expanding their lifespan by reducing the need for an outright replacement, giving a better long-term return on investment.
As the internet continues to evolve, such as with the likes of Web3 and best practices evolve alongside it, no one has all the answers. However, as we become more aware of the carbon impact of digital tech and services, we’ll hopefully see an increasing number of businesses reduce their digital emissions through optimisation and lean practices. It certainly won’t be an overnight change, but together, with the right attitudes, we can head in the right direction.