Building a Greener Web

SVG illustration of the earth on a purple background

As web developers we don’t tend to talk a great deal about the environmental impact of the products we build. But the uncomfortable truth is that the web is responsible for a growing proportion of carbon emissions. Rising temperatures, increasingly extreme weather events, and the failure of this year’s COP26 conference to deliver strong leadership have all highlighted the urgency of reducing our emissions if we’re to avoid disastrous climate change. The commitments of world leaders may have fallen short, but we all have a role to play, and we can’t escape our responsibility.

Talking honestly about our impact

When I published an article for CSS Tricks suggesting that perhaps we should set a carbon budget for our websites, I got a lot of responses. Some were broadly supportive, others were inspired to further analyse the impact of our websites, which I love. But there were also many highly critical responses, which can be more or less summarised as “What’s the point when it’s a drop in the ocean compared to [insert tangentially related thing here]”. Indeed, some were comparing the impact of a 2MB website to streaming a large video, and arguing that our efforts are better spent elsewhere. I want to address some of those arguments, because I feel passionately that individual action can and does have an impact, even when seemingly dwarfed by the actions of governments and global corporations.

Individual action amplifies our voices

First of all, individual action and putting pressure on larger organisations aren’t mutually exclusive! Many people are doing both, as well as making an effort to reduce their environmental impact beyond the web. I believe it lends more weight to our arguments if we can demonstrate an appetite for individual effort too. Without it, it’s much easier for politicians and corporations to dismiss our calls for action as a niche interest.

Talking about this stuff helps

The fact that we’re talking about this is a good thing. It’s one way of applying pressure and making this issue visible. We might not have all the answers, but let’s not stop having the conversation. Making seemingly small changes to improve the carbon footprint of a website is a great starting point for having those conversations and demonstrating things that could have an even greater impact when done on a wider scale.

Working collectively is better

When many people pool their resources towards a shared goal, it becomes a movement. Communities like ClimateAction.tech are growing and becoming stronger through their members sharing knowledge and spurring each other on. To use a climate-adjacent analogy, I recycle, not because I believe that me individually sorting my tins and plastics makes a big difference, but because it can only work if we do it collectively.

This article from the think tank Hot or Cool raises many good points about how individual action and systematic change are both important:

In any society, individuals drive social norms that make up the collective culture. For instance, cultural revolutions don’t happen because of systems change; they happen when a group of people voice a compelling story that propagates across society and becomes a social norm.

Another great quote comes from the article The carbon footprint of the Internet: making the invisible visible by low-carbon web agency Hey Low:

A website's overall impact is minor, as is the effect of a single plastic bag. It makes no difference if there are one or two more. Isn't it simply a plastic bag? We all know now that it's not about just one plastic bag (or one website) - it's the impact of millions of plastic bags, millions of websites. However restrictions are starting to appear for plastic, a tangible and visible material, which the bulk of the internet stays hidden (with no restrictions).

There’s always more that can be done

I’m not just talking about optimising a blog that attracts a few hundred visitors (although that itself is still worth doing). Taking Netflix as an example — as several people mentioned streaming a Netflix video as an activity that would arguably have a worse impact than a 2MB website: Netflix, is in fact, a website. According to Netflix’s own sustainability report, the company uses 100% renewable energy for its internet services. That’s great, but I’d be willing to bet there’s much more they could do too. What about the energy used by users’ devices? By optimising their content they could have an impact here too. Of course, we should always be mindful of corporate greenwashing, and take every claim with a pinch of salt.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “we can’t do everything, so we might as well do nothing”. Netflix’s sustainability report states that streaming accounts for only 5% of their carbon footprint, with a much higher proportion coming from content production and corporate operations. Does that mean they shouldn’t bother trying to reduce the impact their streaming emissions? I would argue not. There’s always going to be a bigger target to hit, but it’s illogical to argue that it means we shouldn’t bother trying to hit the smaller ones.

We can only do what’s within our control — but the impact might surprise you

Sustainability is a huge topic that impacts every area of our lives. But most of us are only experts at one or two things. Individually we can’t fix all the problems, but we can help fix some things in the areas we know.

This case study by Danny van Kooten details the amount of C02 he saved by optimising his WordPress plugins. Used by over 2 million websites, the savings soon add up, as he explains:

Shaving off a single kilobyte in a file that is being loaded on 2 million websites reduces CO2 emissions by an estimated 2950 kg per month.

Reducing the carbon footprint of your sites might even have tangible benefits right now

More and more governments and organisations are requiring environmental impact reports and/or setting sustainability as a criteria for winning contracts. For example, in the UK any new digital services commissioned by the government above a certain threshold need to meet the outcomes defined in the Greening Government ICT and Digital Services Strategy. Even if you don’t care about reducing the carbon footprint of your web projects, it might be in your financial interest to do it anyway.

Inaction achieves nothing

One thing that we can be sure of is it’s better to contribute a small amount to the collective good than to do nothing. Big changes are never achieved by throwing our hands up in despair, only by getting to work. Rather than a drop in the ocean, it’s more productive to think of our actions as a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and gaining momentum.

There are plenty of people who won’t be convinced by my arguments and whose minds I will never change, but by writing about this I hope I can convince just a few people that making an effort to build a greener web is worth it.

Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about how we can reduce the environmental impact of the websites we build and/or taking action, here are some resources:

Talk: A Sustainable Web For Everyone

This talk from State of the Browser conference by Tom Greenwood got me thinking a lot about building sustainable websites. I recommend his book, Sustainable Web Design too.

Watch the talk ⟶

ClimateAction.tech

A community of tech workers using their skills to take action against climate change. There’s a Slack group, action guides, events and projects to get involved with, and they publish Branch magazine.

Join the community ⟶

The Green Web Foundation

The Green Web Foundation produces tools and collects data with aim of aiding the transition towards an internet run entirely on renewable energy.

Visit the website ⟶

The Green Software Foundation

A non-profit dedicated to reducing emissions in the software industry. Consisting of four working groups, their mission is to:

create a trusted ecosystem of people, standards, tooling, and best practices for building green software.

Learn about the Green Software Foundation ⟶

The Sustainable.dev

Developer resources for building more sustainable websites, and a hiring directory for developers with green credentials.

Visit the-sustainable.dev ⟶

Podcast: How to Save a Planet

I’ve been recommended this particular episode breaking down the argument of systematic change versus personal responsibility. (Disclaimer: I haven’t had the chance to listen yet).

Check out the podcast ⟶

Tools for measuring your website’s environmental impact