This week I’ve been frantically deleting personal emails and photos in an effort to reduce the amount of digital storage I need, but sadly to no avail – as soon as I delete a large file, almost immediately another one drops into my inbox. In the absence of spare time to Spring clean my files, I’ve given in and set up what will probably be a lifetime’s direct debit to increase my storage and put a halt to my Google-induced panic…’ you’re out of storage space and will soon be unable to send or receive emails…’
This uneventful episode in my digital life is repeated the world over by individuals and organisations but it is not without its environmental consequences.
Environmental guilt has started to creep into everyday life but it tends to be associated with physical items – recycling (or not) furniture and clothes, long haul flights and the carbon footprint of an avocado. In fact, although there are urban mountains of old handsets, tablets and laptops at recycling centres, we tend to think of these gadgets as harmless and one-stop-shop replacements for endless other consumer goods including alarm clocks, calculators, PCs, newspapers and much more.
Internet energy usage
We can’t touch or feel the internet so it doesn’t feel like it’s doing any damage but the internet itself uses up an extraordinary amount of energy – from our ongoing storage requirements to every time we do an internet search. In fact, Huawei Technologies estimates that the internet’s energy usage is now on a par with the aviation industry and may consume as much as 20 per cent of the world’s electricity by 2030.
Many of the world’s data centres are housed in Loudoun County, Virginia, thanks to a happy mix of fairly reasonable electricity prices and low susceptibility to natural disasters but according to a Greenpeace report, very little of this energy is renewable.
The big Silicon Valley players are already claiming that they have or are reducing their carbon footprint but according to The Guardian, such are their energy demands, they often use carbon offsetting to atone for using fossil fuels rather than being truly green. There are however exceptions such as Facebook’s new data centre in Singapore but on the contrary, the efficiency of China’s data centres is largely unknown.
The same is true of businesses – the more swollen a website becomes the more storage it requires and potentially the more energy it takes to transmit it to a user.
Website carbon calculator
Website Carbon is an online calculator that estimates how much carbon a website uses – beware – by using it you are allowing your results to be stored publically. Businesses for whom having an environmental policy is at the very essence of what they do, may feel more comfortable moving to a ‘green’ web hosting company that guarantees that at least a good proportion of energy used is from renewable sources.
Unlikely bedfellows as they may seem, SEO and environmental concerns could go hand-in-hand as ensuring a website is SEO-friendly, could support an individual webmaster’s drive to improve the carbon footprint of a site. The thought process is two-fold: reduce the number of unnecessary visits to a site, and reduce the amount of data that is downloaded with each visit. Therefore it might be that targeting the right traffic, optimising content, minimising data-heavy on-page assets (such as carousels, GIFs and videos), as well as ensuring the code is clean and free of all but the necessary plugins and tracking script, become as much a part of a company’s environmental plan as its marketing strategy.
Unlike the very visible waste in our oceans, the web debris is more difficult to comprehend. However, given the global focus on climate change perhaps we need to start tuning in to using less energy by downloading fewer films, streaming less music or reducing our relentless searches and in an ideal world, individual websites would be involved in this environmental downsizing too.
Ethical SEO is the practice of techniques and tactics that are deemed to be acceptable to search engines but perhaps we’re about to see the emergence of ‘environmental SEO’?: streamlining a website to ensure it is as energy efficient as possible? If we don’t make some changes, doomsayers are already predicting a rather Orwellian future where the number of internet searches and data consumed is limited by individual, household or business.
And yes, I may be receiving emails again but the irony of writing this is not lost on me.