3 steps to creating zero carbon websites

Written by Wholegrain Team - August 21, 2018

Climate change affects every country on the planet. Over the past 50 years, the average global temperature has risen at its fastest rate in recorded history. As a consequence, we’re seeing changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, with rising sea levels threatening to redraw the map of the world.

The Paris Climate Change Agreement marked a significant point in the battle against global warming. But with the US, one of the world’s biggest polluters, pulling out, it’s clear this isn’t something we can leave to the politicians alone. We all need to do our bit.

But what’s this got to do with the web?

The Environmental Impact of the Web

Tom stunned many participants at the GIC Digital Communications Conference in April 2018, with his talk ‘Greening the Web: How Can We Create Zero Carbon Websites?’, where he detailed a number of surprising stats.

We tend to think of the web as a virtual concept. In fact, there’s been a drive in recent years to take many services online in a bid to improve efficiency while reducing our environmental impact. But what we don’t see while beavering away online are the vast data centres around the world that collect, process, store and exchange our data.

Powered by supercomputers that are in turn cooled by giant electric cooling systems, these centres contribute to the 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity the global internet consumes each year – that’s more than the UK’s entire consumption.

Each time you load a single web page, it emits an average of 6 grams of CO2. Collectively, this means the web accounts for 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to the global aviation industry and roughly the same as Germany, the sixth highest polluter in the world.

What’s more, it’s a number that’s set to rise over the forthcoming years, as the global population increases, more and more people have access to the web, and the popularity of streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify continue to grow.

Sustainable Web Design

Tom wrote a detailed article based on his talk for Kinsta, a WordPress hosting agency that we rank as the top choice for hosting in 2018.

Here’s a summary of his main points, set out as a three-step guide to how we, as web designers, developers and website owners, can work to reduce our emissions and create zero carbon websites.

Step 1: Measure Your Carbon Emissions

To reduce the carbon emissions from our websites, we first need to know what they are. Until recently, it was difficult to find this information.

As passionate advocates for a sustainable web, we decided to take ownership of this issue and lead the field in finding a solution. So we developed the world’s first carbon calculator for websites, WebsiteCarbon.com.

This simple tool allows you to test the homepage of any website and find out the CO2 per page view. If you know your traffic volumes, you can discover your annual CO2 emissions and energy consumption, too. You can also see how your website compares to others that have already been tested.

Like any carbon calculator, it isn’t an exact science – we’ve made a number of assumptions about the websites so that we can compare them through a standardised methodology. But it does give you a useful starting point to measure your carbon emissions so you can work on reducing them.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to improve this tool to increase its accuracy and develop new features.

Step 2: Reduce Data Transfer

Now you know the carbon emissions of your website and how they compare to other sites, you need to figure out to reduce them. The key to this is data transfer. Quite simply, the more data your site fires back and forth, the greater the energy consumption, and therefore the higher the emissions.

There are several ways to tackle this. First, think about what you can do to reduce the page weight. Ideas include:

  • Write clean, efficient code
  • Use SVG graphics and CSS instead of JPEG, PNG and GIF
  • Upload images at the correct scale instead of relying on CSS to resize them
  • Use a tool such as TinyPNG or ShortPixel to compress images
  • Don’t set videos to autoplay; let users choose to only watch those of interest to them
  • Minimise the use of custom fonts
  • Stick to modern web fonts like WOFF and WOFF2, which use higher compression methods
  • Reduce tracking and advertising scripts that rarely offer any value to the user
  • Use mobile solutions like AMP to strip down the current version of a webpage
  • Question the inclusion of every aspect of your site; if its usefulness is in doubt, leave it out
  • Employ a caching solution to reduce the amount of processing required to load a page

Second, reduce non-essential traffic to your website. This might seem a crazy idea, after all most web owners are looking to increase traffic. But you only want the right sort of traffic.

All too often, people land on a page before immediately realising it isn’t relevant to them and quickly navigating away again, which is terrible for your bounce rate. By tightening up your SEO and user experience, and carefully plotting typical user journeys, you’ll enable your users to find the right information in fewer clicks (and without getting bored/frustrated and absconding to your main competitors). Which means you’re providing better value for your readers and your website will be more energy-efficient. It’s a win-win.

Step 3: Use Cleaner Energy

The final step can also have the biggest impact: switching your website to an eco-friendly hosting provider. Green hosting is still finding its feet, and different companies measure this in different ways, ranging from running environmentally friendly office spaces to using renewable energy for their data centres. We recommend looking for a web host that’s both energy-efficient and powered by renewable energy.

While many hosting companies use standard grid electricity, which they have little control over, there are a growing number of hosting providers that actively purchase renewable energy for their data centres. The Green Web Foundation has a useful database of providers that use green energy or are carbon neutral, though it’s a good idea to check with the company directly.

We host our own websites with Timpani and Kinsta.  Timpani is a specialist WordPress service that takes sustainability incredibly seriously. Their data centre in Cambridgeshire runs on 100% green energy. Kinsta offer excellent customer service and a beautiful hosting panel, and exclusively use Google Cloud Platform as their data centre provider, who achieved their goal of purchasing 100% renewable energy by 2017.

In addition to choosing green hosting for all our websites, we set ourselves the goal of increasing the proportion of our clients’ websites using green hosting to 50% by 2020 and 100% by 2026.  This is a challenge but as more options become available it will only get easier. And as more people switch to greener providers it will put pressure on the market to continuously reduce emissions.

A lot of our clients use WP Engine. While they aren’t 100% green, they use some Google data centres and their clients can opt to be hosted there to benefit from Google’s green hosting credentials. German company Raidboxes is another good choice, especially for those hosting websites for mainland European markets.

Creating Zero Carbon Websites

If we want to transform our industry from one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, we need to work collectively and all take responsibility for our actions. By following these three simple steps – measuring our carbon emissions, reducing the amount of data transfer, and swapping to a green hosting provider – we can start to reduce our carbon emissions, while providing a better service for our customers.