The environmental impact of the digital industry

Everything we consume has a carbon footprint. In the west, or global North, everything we consume has a significant carbon footprint, most of which is hidden from us or we choose not to see. The digital industry is one of those things. 

I have written a series of blogs about the environmental impact of the digital industry and how to reduce it. 

I have tried to explain the wider context of this impact and why it’s so important to me personally. I love wildflowers and rather than chucking facts and figures about, research and common sense tells us that telling stories and building on common values is the best way to discuss the climate emergency. In the introductory blog I also cover the depressingly small impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns on carbon in the atmosphere

More specifically related to TPXimpact Group, the financial case for action on the climate emergency is clear. And in regards to the digital industry, it is important to not get carried away with the work I’m trying to do; I know I’m talking about doing less bad stuff, rather than more regenerative, good stuff.  I also outline why it’s vital to not just count on hyperscale data centres to run on renewable energy, the rest of the internet is run on electricity which unfortunately still has a very significant carbon intensity. This means the digital industry is on a par with the aviation industry when it comes to emissions. 

So how does a website cause emissions? Every byte transferred around the globe requires electricity, and as websites are getting increasingly bloated that is a lot of bytes. But what are the reasons behind that increase? Take a look at my reasoning on the Jevons Paradox and our lack of willingness to accept our (in the broadest sense as humans!) agency over the situation

I have worked up a method for calculating the carbon emissions of websites, which is proving to be a very useful tool. I used it to calculate the emissions from all the group websites for the recently released annual report. 86 trees are needed to absorb the emissions produced by our websites over the course of a year. I know that doesn’t sound much, but that’s just our not very frequently visited websites. 

The beauty of the calculation is that it can be used for any kind of data transfer. I’m using it for calculating the impact of digital marketing campaigns and I’m hoping to do the same for API calls and AI algorithms. In September at Manifesto we’ll be working on improving and automating this quite manual calculation!  

So in terms of ways to reduce the impact of a website, methods span content and design (basically get the right people on your site, let them do what they came on to do and then let them leave), tech (including architecture, hosting, bot blocking, compression and data minimisation amongst others), starting conversations, setting carbon budgets, rethinking KPIs and being vulnerable.

Neil Clark – Environmental Strategist at TPXimpact

Neil Clark
TPXimpact's Planet Officer