What is the Internet?

I use to believe that it was magic that floated around us, connecting to things in an unknown way, able to tell us anything we wanted to know at any time. In fact, from time to time it still feels that way to me. You can’t see it, yet you know its there. It makes all of my favorite things work. It makes my life so much easier. Could you imagine going back to large paper maps for road trips? Or spending hours in a library, looking through encyclopedias for research? The internet has greatly improved our lives. With every positive is a negative though.

Would you believe that this is what the internet looks like?

Looks a lot less magical than I pictured …

This isn’t exactly the ‘internet’ but it is a data center. These data centers store and process all of the information that’s on the internet. Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google all use facilities like these. With large data centers comes even larger uses of energy.

With demand continuously growing, so to are these data centers. More people are working from home. More items use or connect to the internet. More past times include being connected. The average person spends 415.5 minutes or more a day on the internet. That’s almost 7 hours a day.

If you’re anything like me, then your also multitasking different systems at once, all using the internet. I’m scrolling Facebook on my phone, while listening to a movie on my television, while my Alexa is counting down the moments until my Ring doorbell should alert me that my food delivery is here!

What’s the Problem?

The servers in these centers produce a huge amount of emissions, meaning that the internet is using a lot of energy and leaving behind a huge carbon footprint. Most electricity used for these centers are non-renewable.

This fact has killed any remnants of ‘magic’ left in my mind.

Jeff Kettle wrote that “Research estimates that by 2025, the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions”.  According to websitecarbon.com, “The internet consumes […] 416.2TWh of electricity each year. To give you some perspective, that’s more than the entire United Kingdom”. That same website allow web designer to search their own website to see how they’re contributing to all of this.

If you’re reading this blog post, then you’re producing 0.20g of CO2 and this is just a tiny website. The website https://www.websitecarbon.com/ puts this amount into some perspective for us. 0.20g of CO2 is equivalent to 26 billion bubbles or boiling water for 3,247 cups of tea. Jeff Kettles article, mentioned earlier, is only slightly worst at 33 billion bubbles or 0.25g of CO2.

Why is that bad?

Non-renewable energy sources are being used up. These sources could include fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, oil and natural gases which are mainly made up of the element carbon. These resources will eventually run out. Any items that aren’t run on renewable energy sources (like wind, water or solar) will become un-useable. Electricity would fail, transportation would stop, factories would halt, food production would stop, and our economy would crash.

Emitting carbon into the atmosphere can be detrimental as well. To much will lead to climate change, toxic rain air pollution, melting polar ice caps, and raising the average surface temperature of our planet. That causes extreme weather events would increase like heatwaves, rainstorms, droughts, cyclones and blizzards would devastate the planet. Health impacts like respiratory diseases and cancer would become apparent.

I think we can agree that having a large carbon footprint is bad now.

How can websites help?

The internet is still an amazing advancement. It’s a place to learn, socialize, connect and more. The internet itself is not the problem – the data centers growing carbon footprint is. But all problems have solutions.

Kettle writes that “Web designers could embrace minimalism, helping to reduce the energy required to load images, video, and even specialized fonts that all require extra, sizeable files. Of course, this would make for a much less engaging internet experience.”. I agree that web designers can consider the footprint they’re creating but most of the time they’re sole focus is to create a page the viewers would respond positively to. As a view, can we attempt to be more mindful of our consumption?

What can companies do on their end? Some have begun the switch to reusable energy sources for their data centers (solar powered or wind captured). This takes a huge investment of time and money but some companies have already started!

Josephine Walbank on datacentremagazine.com writes about the top then data centrers using green energy here https://datacentremagazine.com/articles/top-10-data-centres-using-green-energy . The companies on this list have invested millions but are making a positive impact on our environment. One company, Digital Realty, has even received the 2021 EPA Energy Star Partner of the Year award. Google intends to cut all carbon emissions by 2030. One way they’re doing this is by utilizing solar and wind energy. They’re also improving their systems and tracking crucial information to meet that goal. The video below goes into some specific steps Google had to take to gradually get to that goal.

Going back to 2006 Google started installing solar panels. Google is one of the largest corporate purchasers of clean energy today. In 2006 when they began, this was very expensive. “Now, wind and solar are cheaper than any other resource in many areas of the world”. Now that the cost has declined significantly, hopefully more companies are able to follow this same path and purchase these clean energy tools.

Now what?

Raise awareness!

Websitecarbon.com shows off several low carbon pages on their website and even offer a book to provide web designers with the “how to” for clean designing. They say “There’s hope: small, thoughtful changes in design and development can reduce the damage, while also making the web more resilient in the face of a changing climate”.

Between the centers becoming more clean, the designers of the pages, and us as end uses … we can work to lessen our footprint for the sake of this planet. We just have to care.

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