If the internet was a country, it would be the 7th largest emitter.

The use of the internet alone causes emissions of roughly 2,3 million tons of CO2 daily. And these negative impacts will likely increase exponentially over time simply because the global population is growing and many people will still come online over the next few years.

What’s the role of companies in all of this?

At our recent Innov8rs Connect on Climate and SDGs, Sebastian Mueller (COO and Co-Founder of MING Labs) shared tangible ways of measuring the environmental impact of our digital systems and how to make them more sustainable.

Here’s a summary of what we learned.

How Can You Measure The Digital Footprint?

Every company's digital carbon footprint matters, and leaders can do a lot to improve and move towards a more sustainable digital landscape.

“The reality is that the digital world is tightly linked with physical resources – including the servers, cables, routers, and end-user devices, the materials and processes used to produce them, and the energy used to power them. In short, everything that happens in the digital world actively consumes energy”.

Before delving into concrete actions designed to reduce the footprint, you should measure the total impact of your company in terms of digital emissions- i.e., the energy used for hardware and software utilization and maintenance along with data transmission and storage.

And here is where things get tough. There's no silver bullet solution to measure this correctly and assign it numbers, values, or at least qualitative statements. However, different measures can serve as proxies:

1. Application Usage Rates and Bounce Rates

You can make first qualitative judgments by looking at your Google Analytics and comparing data, for example, between similar applications you might be running in different countries. This already tells you something- at least about the efficiency of the touchpoint you have designed. On their side, the sessions by country can help you choose where to host: the further the data travels, the higher the energy consumption, so make sure you host close to your customers. It's not much, but it's a great start.

2. Back-End Infrastructure, Energy Mix, Network Traffic, and Page Weight

Websites are major determinants of energy usage. Some basic tools like Website Carbon Calculator and Ecograder can help estimate your website's carbon footprint. By analyzing the amount of traffic that goes through the website and the energy mix that powers it, they give you a quick take on your website's impact on the planet.

3. Back-End Workload and Data Storage

Typically, if you use public clouds (e.g., AWS, Google Cloud, etc.), you can access data storage information easily. By combining that information with your back-end workload information and translating that into an efficient statement, you should have an overview of energy and carbon intensity, at least from the back-end and storage point of view.

4. Total Back-End Energy Consumption and Back-End Infrastructure Energy Efficiency

The Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio helps you describe how efficiently a computer data center uses energy; specifically, how much energy is used by the computing equipment (in contrast to cooling and other overhead that supports the equipment).

5. Total End Point Energy Consumption and Total Transmission Energy Consumption

It’s tough to get good numbers on end point and total transmission energy consumption because the reality is that customers have different devices. For instance, the carbon footprint is very different between an iPhone 8, an iPhone 12, and a first-generation Android. So making good statements about these measures is challenging.

“Nevertheless, you have to be as efficient as you can where you can make the most significant impact. Suppose you have efficient application design, efficient usage of back-end resources, and also pay attention to the energy mix at the back-end. In that case, you’re already making the difference. And from there, you can only get better”.

How Can You Improve It?

Improving and reducing the carbon footprint can't be an overnight transformation. It takes attempts and time. Sebastian shares some concrete, simple steps that organizations can take in order to cut their energy consumption and carbon emissions:

1. Green UX

A single web page consumes on average 1,76g CO2 per page view. Every time data is transmitted, and the more it’s transmitted, the higher the energy consumption. But it's not enough to only look at the single pages. It's the whole journey that makes up the consumer’s total energy footprint. Accordingly, it would be best if you sustainably redesigned the whole UX. The following are some examples of how to put Green UX into practice (the list is not exhaustive):

  • Mobile-First Design: this helps lighten page weight through design asset efficiency.
  • Use Web Fonts: the fewer custom fonts need to be loaded, the less energy is used.
  • Reuse Assets: reuse assets, ideally coded, throughout the touchpoint. Utilize design systems.
  • Click Path Efficiency: iterate on click path efficiency to reduce the energy consumption of customer journeys.
  • Accessibility: improve accessibility by following W3C (The World Wide Web Consortium) standards and accessibility best practices.
  • Offer Dark Mode Option: Dark Mode can reduce energy usage on the endpoint- if it's an OLED-based display.

2. Grid-Responsive Design

The actual carbon intensity of the energy network may vary throughout the day. And studies have shown that running workloads when carbon intensity is low reduces the carbon footprint by >45% and up to 90%. The idea with Grid-Responsive Design is to shift heavy computing workloads to less carbon-intensive periods so that you have less carbon emitted for the same energy usage. Yet this is still something the developers are experimenting with.

3. Green Coding

Training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes. Thus, writing code that produces algorithms with minimal energy consumption – i.e., Green Coding – is another way to cut the digital carbon footprint. How to put Green Coding into practice?

  • Modular, Reusable Code: reusable coding and assets ensure lighter code bases.
  • Algorithmic Resource Efficiency: benchmark algorithms for energy efficiency and optimize resource usage.
  • Follow Web Standards: follow W3C standards to optimize loading speeds, performance, and accessibility.
  • Coded Elements Over Images: if you can, create visuals and animations in code as much as possible.
  • Minimize Libraries / Third Party Tools: minimize and optimize uses of third-party packages, as they often increase page weight.
  • Compress Religiously. Everything. Always.

4. Green IT

Improving your company’s digital sustainability also equates to redesigning the IT infrastructure. Accordingly, here are some practical examples you can take inspiration from:

  • Server Relocation: bring servers closer to the actual users through geo access analysis.
  • Utilize CDNs: bring heavy assets closer to users by leveraging CDNs (Content Delivery Network), geographically dispersed and interconnected groups of servers that provide cached internet content from a network location closest to a user to speed up its delivery.
  • Green Hosting: standard electricity emits 475g CO2e/kWh while electricity from renewable resources only emits 33,4g CO2e/kWh. Pick a host that is energy efficient and uses green energy.
  • Edge Computing: move heavy computation close to the user.
  • Virtual Computing: use virtual machines over physical servers for greater utilization.
  • Energy Efficient Infrastructure: ensure to host on servers with high levels of energy efficiency.

5. Green Product Management

Sustainability is not a one-off activity. We can’t optimize once. In addition, every system deteriorates over time. Hence, sustainability should be an ongoing commitment to keep doing well and improving. You should then:

  •  Embed sustainability in product decision-making and make it a key criteria
  • Measure achievements regularly and build strong feedback loops that include green assessments of the product. And measure aggregate energy consumption over a lifetime to have reliable baselines for offsets.
  • Keep optimizing, set more ambitious targets over time, and reduce your energy budget.

6. Org Maturity

It's only when sustainability becomes part of the company's processes, leadership, strategy, culture, and mindset that it turns into a fundamental practice that everyone across the organization appreciates and commits to. But it’s difficult and takes training.

… And There’s More

By 2040, the IT sector will account for 14% of the world's carbon footprint. As a business leader, it's your responsibility to take concrete short-, medium-, and long-term actions to green your company's digital footprint.

As such, it's crucial to integrate sustainability into your company's processes, culture, and mindset and turn it into an actual practice so that the entire organization can engage in it. But first, measure how much energy is used for hardware and software utilization and maintenance along with data transmission and storage.

Eventually, define concrete steps to improve your sustainable performance: redesign the whole UX sustainably, shift heavy computing workloads to less carbon-intensive periods, write code that produces algorithms with minimal energy consumption, and choose a green hoster.

These practices might sound like extra work, and some are even a bit tricky to implement. Nevertheless, greening the digital footprint has many additional benefits for companies other than energy and carbon savings. It can help you to:

  • Reduce energy and hosting bills: more efficient IT and lower energy usage also lead to significant cost savings.
  • Reduce TCO on infrastructure: more modern and better-utilized infrastructure requires less maintenance.
  • Reduce loading times: smaller websites and apps load faster and lead to fewer drop-offs correlated with longer loading time.
  • Improve SEO: Green UX and Coding practices are very aligned with search engine optimization.
  • Improve brand image: greening your IT allows you to communicate tangible progress on your sustainability targets.
  • Send the right message: sustainability claims delivered on dirty IT are not trustworthy.

Considering all of the above, how are you going to green your digital footprint?