The Pedagogy of Sustainable Web Design (part 2)
by Denis F. Doyon, Samadhi Web Design
Large data centers also lease space to hosting providers, companies like GoDaddy, BlueHost and HostGator that provide server space and support for both large and small websites. Of the top 20 webhosts globally (Global Web Hosting Market Share October 2019), only two — 1&1 Ionos and Hetzner Online AG, both based in Europe — use 100% renewable energy (The Green Web Foundation, Directory, n.d.).
The Green Web Foundation’s mission is to expand that number by increasing transparency. Media educators and students who maintain personal or professional websites can enter their URL into the Green Web Foundation’s Green Web Check tool and find out if the webhost uses 100% renewable energy (The Green Web Foundation, Is your website hosted green?, n.d.) If not, website owners are encouraged to share the results on social media to nudge the hosting provider to clean up its act.
I have used the Green Web Foundation’s directory to find green webhosts for my clients’ sites, and my own. But what exactly is a “green webhost”? A recent experience provides an illustration.
When a recent client specified green hosting for a new website I was developing for him, I recommended DreamHost. I had opened my own DreamHost account several years ago, impressed by the company’s commitment to reducing their environmental impact. A page on DreamHost’s website described their green initiatives, including LEED Platinum facilities, data centers that partnered with clean wind programs, and purchases of carbon credits to offset 100% of the company’s electricity use. Because DreamHost was listed in the Green Web Foundation’s directory, I could display a “green hosted” badge on my client’s new website.
So I was surprised when a few months after launching my client’s site I found that the badge, complete with a green smiley-face, had been replaced by a grey sad-face badge signifying “not hosted green”. What had happened? The Green Web Foundation told me that they no longer considered DreamHost a green webhost because they no longer purchased green energy. But when I visited DreamHost’s “We Are Green” page again I found the same eco-friendly language: “We’re making a conscious effort to reduce our impact on the environment, with optimized facilities and policies that put respect for natural resources at the core of what we do.” (“Green Hosting from DreamHost”, n.d.)
I put on my media literacy thinking cap and looked closer. I noticed that the commitment to purchase carbon credits was gone, replaced by a statement that DreamHost’s data centers are “powered by grids that obtain electricity from many renewable sources.” This sounds good, but most major electrical grids in the United States obtain at least some energy from renewable sources, so practically any data center in the US can use this claim.
I contacted DreamHost and learned that the company now leases space from Amazon Web Services (AWS), the world’s largest cloud computing company. This is a good example of the widespread migration from in-house data centers to hyperscale centers. Greenpeace has charged AWS with having a deceptive posture on renewables. For example, it says that while Amazon Web Services is committed to using 100% renewable energy, it has greatly expanded its data center in Northern Virginia even though the local electric utility has not been able to provide any additional renewable energy (Hill, 2019). I confirmed that the data center in this dispute is used by DreamHost, so perhaps my client’s site is hosted there.
“We stopped purchasing carbon credits,” the DreamHost representative explained to me, “when we realized that we could do a lot to be a more environmentally-friendly organization without necessarily being carbon-neutral.” That sounded like PR-speak to me. True, using power-efficient processors and installing recycling bins in every office, as DreamHost reports, will help a company be more environmentally friendly, but if the company is not carbon-neutral and isn’t powered by renewable energy, can it really claim to be a “green host”?
This is an excellent example of how media literacy skills can be integrated into coursework on new technologies. Whether students are investigating the economic, social and cultural impacts of new technology, or learning how to use digital technology tools in hands-on skills-based courses, they can be encouraged to look more closely at the environmental impact of digital technology and the sustainability claims of providers.
Sustainable web design
Using a webhost powered by 100% renewable energy is one important factor in website sustainability, but it’s not the only one. An emerging concept is sustainable web design. The idea is that good design can reduce the amount of data traveling between the user and the webhost, and thus reduce carbon emissions throughout the system, from the data center to the office computer or mobile phone.
Today, the average size of a webpage is 3.48MB, which is more than 24 times the size it was in 2003 (Manoverboard Inc., n.d.). As the speed of internet connections has increased, web designers have been able to use more data-intensive content, like full-screen photos and streaming video. But more data served means more electrical energy used, and more carbon emissions generated. Each site may generate only 1 or 2 grams of CO2 every time a user visits, but with 200 million active websites on the internet and the busiest sites getting hundreds of millions of hits per month, the carbon emissions add up.
Beyond choosing a green webhost, specialists have outlined three other strategies for reducing the carbon emissions associated with a website (MightyBytes, Inc., n.d.):
1. Reducing the number of clicks (and thus page loads) for each user. This includes search engine optimization (SEO) so that users find your site quickly, and clear and efficient site navigation, so that users don’t have to wander around your website to find what they’re looking for.
2. Creating lightweight pages (so that fewer bytes are served) by using a mobile-first design approach, resizing and compressing images, and avoiding data hogs like Flash.
I already use these techniques in my work to create websites that work well for site visitors and thus for my clients. My clients want sites that rank high in search results (good SEO), and they want site pages to load quickly and work perfectly on mobile phones. Only recently have I learned that these elements of good web design can also help reduce their site’s carbon footprint.
Educators in skills-based web design courses can easily integrate these concepts into student assignments. Students can build sample websites, and then measure the carbon emissions they generate using online tools at websitecarbon.com or ecograder.com. As students learn more advanced techniques (caching, compressing images, etc.) they can use the same tools to measure their carbon savings. The goal could be to design a website with no more than 0.5 grams of CO2 per page view.
Designing a greener future
My research uncovered some sobering facts — like the explosive growth of Big Data, and the amount of CO2 emitted when I watch a movie on Netflix. But it also gave me encouragement. I learned how I could make a difference in my own work, by recommending truly green webhosts for my clients, following sustainable website design practices, and supporting and publicizing grassroots projects to reduce the internet’s carbon footprint. Educators can use the same ideas to encourage students to investigate the environmental impact of new media technology while they learn technological skills.
The climate crisis makes this imperative. In every human endeavor – including the creation of media products — we must examine the environmental consequences of our actions and take small but important steps toward a more sustainable future.
This article was first published in The Journal of Sustainability Education, 29 April 2020.
Online resources mentioned in this article:
http://clickclean.org – Greenpeace campaign calling on major internet companies to power their data centers on renewable energy. Includes a tool displaying whether popular online services are powered by renewable energy.
https://ecograder.com – Tool to assess individual websites on sustainable website design.
https://serving.green – A manifesto for sustainable web design.
https://sustainablewebdesign.com – Resources for sustainable web design.
https://thegreenwebfoundation.org – Includes a Green Web Check tool revealing whether an individual website is hosted on a server using 100% renewable energy, and a global directory of green webhosts.
https://websitecarbon.com – Tool estimating the carbon footprint of individual websites.
Andrae, A. S. G., & Edler, T. (2015, April 30). On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2078-1547/6/1/117.
Belkhir, L. (2019, June 18). How smartphones are heating up the planet. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/how-smartphones-are-heating-up-the-planet-92793.
Global data center storage capacity 2016-2021. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/638593/worldwide-data-center-storage-capacity-cloud-vs-traditional/.
Global Web Hosting Market Share October 2019. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://hostadvice.com/marketshare/.
Green Chemistry vs Toxic Technology: The Problem With Electronics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.electronicstakeback.com/toxics-in-electronics/
Green Hosting from DreamHost. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dreamhost.com/company/we-are-green/
Greenpeace (2017). Clicking clean: Who is winning the race to build a green internet? Retrieved from http://www.clickclean.org.
Hill, J. S. (2019, February 15). Greenpeace & Amazon Trade Blows Over 100% Renewable Energy Claims. CleanTechnica. Retrieved from https://cleantechnica.com.
Jones, N. (2018, September 12). How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity. Retrieved October 26, 2019, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y.
Manoverboard Inc. (n.d.). #ServingGreen. Retrieved from https://serving.green.
MightyBytes, Inc. (n.d.). Sustainable Web Design: Resources for building a cleaner, greener internet. Retrieved from https://sustainablewebdesign.org/.
Muntean, M., Guizzardi, D., Schaaf, E., Crippa, M., Solazzo, E., Olivier, J., & Vignatti, E. (2018). Fossil CO2 emissions of all world countries – 2018 Report. Publications Office of the European Union.
The Green Web Foundation (n.d.). Directory. Retrieved October 27, 2019, from https://www.thegreenwebfoundation.org/directory/.
__ (n.d.) Is your website hosted green? Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.thegreenwebfoundation.org.
The Pedagogy of Sustainable Web Design (part 1)
by Denis F. Doyon, Samadhi Web Design
Like many people, I spend a lot of time on the internet. But as a website designer, it’s my job to encourage other people to spend time on the internet (or at least, on my clients’ websites). I’ve begun to wonder how my work contributes to the climate crisis, and more important, if there’s anything I can do to reduce the carbon footprint of the websites I create. What I’ve learned not only shows me how I can create more eco-friendly websites, it also suggests how educators can encourage students to investigate the environmental impact of new media technology while they learn technological skills.
As formal education increasingly emphasizes science, technology, engineering and science (STEM), many media educators may choose to promote skills-based technology curricula as a substitute for critical media literacy. The proliferation of digital media production tools — accessible online, easy to use, packed with features and often free — creates a powerful temptation to see media education simply as training in digital media production.
When I worked some years ago as a media literacy educator, I always advocated teaching media production skills — writing media — as an essential component of media literacy education, and I often struggled with colleagues more interested in teaching media analysis and evaluation — reading media. But the growing fascination with teaching digital media production skills seems to have swung the pendulum in the other direction, and an uncritical embrace of online technologies leaves little room for critical investigation of sources and consequences. In particular, it poses a challenge for media educators who are trying to incorporate environmental issues into their pedagogical practice.
At the dawn of the Internet Era, many of its evangelists promised substantial benefits to the natural environment. Imagine how much paper it will save! Imagine how much travel it will make unnecessary! And in fact, some of these promises have come true. As email, social media and online publishing have risen, the so-called “dead tree media” — traditional mail, newspapers, magazines, and books — are seemingly headed for extinction, undoubtedly saving huge numbers of trees from the paper mill. Videoconferencing, messaging and other online collaboration tools have similarly reduced the need for cross-country business trips and the carbon emissions they generate.
But these environmental savings must be measured against the environmental costs of new media technologies, including the exposure of workers and the environment to toxic metals in mining, manufacturing, and disposal of billions of electronic devices each year (Green Chemistry vs Toxic Technology: The Problem with Electronics, n.d.).
Further, the carbon footprint of the internet is growing rapidly. Every part of the internet runs on electrical energy, from the devices used for access (computers, tablets, mobile phones, game consoles, TVs, etc.) to the servers holding the applications and data we use, and all of the routers, switches and other equipment in between. The information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem as a whole, which includes mobile-phone networks and television, currently produces more than 2% of global carbon emissions — roughly equal to the aviation industry’s carbon emissions from fuel (Jones, 2018). Educators who assign web-based projects can thus challenge students to evaluate the environmental footprint of their own projects.
The carbon footprint of data centers
Measuring the carbon footprint of the internet is very complicated, but the largest single source of carbon emissions are data centers, the facilities containing the routers, switches, servers, and other equipment that store and serve online applications and data to end users. Total data center storage capacity worldwide is currently around 2 trillion gigabytes. (Global data center storage capacity 2016-2021). Keeping these data centers running consumes 1 to 2% of the world’s electricity (Jones, 2018, Andrae & Edler, 2015). The carbon footprint of internet data centers is currently around 500 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year (Belkhir 2019) — more than what is produced by the 210 million people in Brazil (Muntean et al., 2018).
Internet traffic to and from data centers is growing by an astounding 25% per year (Andrae & Edler, 2015). The total electricity demand of data centers, however, has remained relatively flat over the past five years, as gigantic “hyperscale” data centers run by Amazon, Google, Facebook and others have pulled business from smaller, less-efficient data centers, including in-house corporate and institutional facilities. While this trend raises other issues (such as, do we really want a handful of giant corporations to handle all the world’s data?) it has allowed the data center sector to enjoy exponential growth without a parallel increase in electricity demand (Jones, 2018).
However, at some point both technological efficiency and corporate consolidation will yield diminishing returns. Forecasting models predict that the burgeoning information and communications technology sector will consume 8 to 20% of global electricity by 2035, with data centers responsible for a third of that amount (Jones, 2018).
Reducing the carbon footprint of data centers is thus dependent on conversion to renewable energy sources. If data centers are powered by non-renewable energy sources (principally coal), explosive growth in the sector will produce staggering levels of CO2 emissions. If, on the other hand, data centers are powered by 100% renewable energy, their investments could accelerate the transition to a renewably powered global economy.
Here, the corporate record is mixed. Greenpeace’s #ClickClean campaign provides a scorecard and applies public pressure on the worst offenders. Some of the largest operators of data centers, like Google, Facebook, and Apple have made public commitments to use 100% renewable energy, and they have made significant progress toward that goal. Other household names like Netflix, HBO and Twitter have not made commitments to use renewables, and they receive failing grades from Greenpeace (Greenpeace, 2017).
This article was first published in The Journal of Sustainability Education, 29 April 2020.
Bringing The Green Web to WordPress
The Internet’s usage of dirty energy is a growing concern. The Internet’s data centres alone may already have the same CO₂ footprint as global air travel. For the first time, this year’s Internet Health Report by the Mozilla Foundation has explicitly stated that sustainability should be a bigger priority for the industry.
WordPress is the most widely used CMS on the Internet. As of April 2018, it powers 30.6% of the world’s top 10 million websites. This makes WordPress a concentrated target to promote the greening of the Internet.
Fortunately, some big hosting players in the WordPress space are already in The Green Web Foundation’s directory. Notably, DreamHost.
However, there is a lot more work we can do here. As a developer, the simplest step I could take was to submit a plugin to the WordPress plugin repository. Therefore I have created The Green Web Widget. It is a very simple plugin that allows users to easily display The Green Web Foundation’s badge. The badge shows whether your WordPress host is green or not.
In conclusion, if you are a WordPress user, I would love to see people using this widget. And if you’re still hosted grey, why not get in touch with your host and encourage them to make a commitment to sustainability?
What your company needs to know about carbon and technology
The future of technology is low-carbon, and why companies should be paying attention.
Messages, tweets, and streaming videos—the electricity needed to keep these and the rest of our digital lives churning adds up to an estimated 830 million tons of CO2 annually. Put another way: if the internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest in energy consumption.
Last fall, in an effort to convince corporate America to lower carbon emissions, the White House announced the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. By signing the pledge, companies are demonstrating an ongoing commitment to climate action. The 154 pledges include longtime renewable energy investors—Apple, Facebook, Google—and relative newcomers, including Airbnb, Bloomberg, Disney, and Starbucks. Meanwhile, the European Commission has set out its vision for data centers to be powered by 80% renewable energy by 2020.
It’s a lot of talk, but evidence of follow-through is growing. Apple used Earth Day to remind us that renewable energy powers our iMessages and Google is putting its weight behind expanding renewable certification programs in Asia.
You’ve probably heard the rumblings. If you run (or help run) a company, here’s how it will affect you.
Every day is impact assessment day
Chances are, your company is affected by impact assessments, whether you know it or not.
Impact assessments exist for many reasons. Sometimes an assessment is required by law—as is true for federal agencies subject to the The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example. Other times, an assessment is intrinsically motivated. It could be the outcome of a mission statement, or part of an opt-in certification.
The last category is the one that Etsy, Kickstarter, Patagonia, Seventh Generation, and Warby Parker all have in common. Each of these companies are subject to an impact assessment as part of their B Corp certification, a designation that aims to be to businesses “what Fair Trade certification is to coffee,” according to the B Corp website.
Even if your company isn’t subject to an impact assessment, you may be part of another company’s assessment.
Image Relay is in the digital asset management business—in other words, the company will host your files, photos, and videos for a fee. Image Relay hosts files for Citrix, Michigan State University, and PayPal. Image Relay is also a B Corp.
“Our carbon footprint does factor into our B Corp score, “ says Skye Chalmers, founder of Image Relay. “Our energy provider, Green Mountain Power, helped in this direction. They recently became a B Corp and are taking a progressive approach to renewables and energy efficiency.”
The key for impact assessments is reflecting how much carbon is released—or not—according to your company’s technology use.
If you don’t think this applies to your company, remember: technology always comes with a carbon footprint. It comes from the daily operations of email and file hosting, to running a website or app, to high-performance computing, including the transactions processed by data centers on behalf of financial institutions.
Next level cost-cutting
Data centers use a metric called Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) to measure efficiency. The magic number is 1.
Facebook and Google are pushing the efficiency limits of their custom-built, single-tenant data centers, scoring PUEs as low as 1.05. Meanwhile, the rest of us tend to rent space in multi-tenant centers, where reaching maximum efficiency isn’t always possible.
Jim Smith, Chief Technology Officer of Digital Realty Trust, the world’s largest operator of data centers, spoke about the predicament back in 2012. “I’m approaching my limits,” says Smith. “We find ourselves at a point of diminishing returns.”
What’s next when efficiency can only cut costs so far? Switching to an energy source that requires less electricity to run. It’s a move that can bring cost-cutting to the next level, bypassing hardware and software efficiency limits.
It’s also a proactive move, explains Jack Pouchet, VP of Market Development at Emerson Network Power and board member at The Green Grid.
“Electricity is one of the single biggest operating expenses you have,” says Jack. “If you use renewable energy, you can be sure you’re not going to have a carbon tax. Whether that means a carbon tax from the country or the boardroom carbon tax—an organization coming after you for your business practices—if you can avoid that, you have an advantage.”
The transparency advantage
Every year, Greenpeace spends months researching and writing a report called Click Clean. The report meticulously scores companies on transparency, commitment, and championship, and breaks down energy use by renewable, coal, gas, and nuclear sources.
Click Clean takes a lot of the mystery out of the internet as we know it. Turns out, the technical infrastructure running our daily lives and business operations are owned by a few.
Greenpeace makes this information accessible, digestible, and relevant. As transparency becomes status quo, not disclosing energy sources or communicating a sustainability policy will become a disadvantage.
“I think the trend is towards more visibility on IT infrastructure and data,” says Aaron Binkley, Director of Sustainability at Digital Realty and board member at The Green Grid. “As a result, people are going to start seeing that there are facilities that ‘house’ the internet and they’re using incredible amounts of energy to do that on behalf of the customer. That’s an awareness that not everyone has, but it’s growing.”
The bottom line is that your company doesn’t have to be in the technology business to be affected by the low-carbon internet. On some level, we’re all “in technology”. Knowing the carbon footprint of your supply chain—or where you fit into someone else’s—is a start.
Jenn Schlick is the Web Manager at the MIT Energy Initiative. Jenn’s work focuses on the benefits of using renewable energy in digital products and services. She spoke about Low-Carbon Web Design at WordCamp Finland 2016. Follow Jenn on Twitter: @jennschlick