Zero Carbon WordPress

Written by Tom Greenwood - June 17, 2017

In December 2015, world leaders from 195 countries met in Paris and adopted the first ever universal, legally binding global deal to prevent runaway climate change. This weekend I brought this topic back to Paris in my talk at WordCamp Europe, with the intention of raising awareness of the issue and inspiring collective action against climate change within the WordPress community.

I’m a strong believer that while we might look to politicians to set targets and take leadership on important issues, the reality of the world we live in is created by the actions of the individuals and organisations that act within our society and so it is important that we feel empowered to move towards a zero carbon future.

What has climate change got to with WordPress?

Climate change and WordPress might not seem to be related in any significant way at first glance, but the connection is much stronger than it appears. Although the internet appears clean and harmless, it consumes vast amounts of energy. In fact, it uses more energy each year than the whole of the United Kingdom – a staggering 416.2TWh. That amount of electricity production accounts for 2% of global C02 emissions, the same amount as the global aviation industry and equivalent to the 6th highest polluting country in the world – Germany!

Illustration showing the electricity consumption and carbon emissions of the internet

We might think of data as virtual but it is very much physical. It is stored on physical hardware, housed in physical buildings and transmitted by physical networks, all of which consume energy. It is estimated that on average, the transmission of 1GB of data uses about 5kWh of electricity, enough to drive an electric car about 20 miles or leave a 30 watt light bulb on for a full week.

WordPress is the world’s most popular CMS and currently accounts for 27% of websites worldwide. Just think about that for a minute – that’s a lot of data!

OK, I admit that WordPress does not account for 27% of global data transfer, because there are a small number of high traffic websites, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Netflix that use a huge proportion of global data on their own. But we still have a big impact, and we also need to factor in all of the emissions from the physical work that we do within the WordPress community for our daily jobs, conferences, meetups and social events.

So what can we do about it?

#1 – Choose a green host

The easiest thing that you can do to reduce the carbon emissions of a website is to choose an environmentally friendly web host. A good green host should be energy efficient and powered entirely by renewable energy. Google are leaders in the field here with a commitment to achieving 100% renewables within 2017 and having achieved huge energy savings in their data centres over the past few years, while AWS is catching up fast having previously been heavily powered by coal. We’ve moved all of our own web properties onto Google Cloud Platform and in some cases are using Cloudways as a user friendly admin panel to make management easier.

The easiest way to find green web hosts in your country is to check out the database at the Green Web Foundation and to install their browser extension, which can highlight websites that it knows are powered by greener hosts. It is also worth checking out the Greenpeace #clickclean report.

When it comes to WordPress, things are not so easy because none of the most popular WordPress hosts such as Flywheel, WP Engine, Pagely or have a commitment to using renewable energy at this time. When we spoke to WP Engine’s EMEA MD Fabio Torlini on our first ever podcast episode, he explained that managed WordPress hosts provide a platform but do not own or operate their own data centres, giving them little control over the physical impact of their services. This is an awkward reality but by making it clear to our favourite hosts that we want green energy, it will encourage them to select greener data centre providers or to lobby their existing providers to clean up their operations.

#2 – Create energy efficient websites

The average web page is now 2.9MB, over 30 times the size of the average web page in 2003. As explained, data translates into energy and carbon emissions, so as designers and developers we can have a huge impact on emissions by designing more efficient web pages. There are many ways that we can do this but some easy initial tips are:

  1. Use less images and video
  2. Don’t autoplay videos
  3. Compress images using a tool such as TinyPNG or WP Smush Pro
  4. Use caching to reduce server load
  5. Lazy load content that is out of sight
  6. Delete unused files, pages and websites
  7. If in doubt, leave it out

The fantastic thing about energy efficient web design is that small file sizes load faster, improve user experience and also help improve organic search rankings, so its a win-win.

Similarly, designing websites that have a good user experience and naturally good SEO enables users to find what they are looking for more efficiently, meaning that they spend less time online faffing around and clicking back and forth between pages in search of information, and therefore use less energy. Of course, a better user experience could lead people to do more online, but at least the energy and time will be used productively rather than wasted.

#3 – Use low carbon offices

As mentioned, our daily working environment also has a significant impact on the environment, which in some cases could be greater than the websites that we create. If possible, use office space that is easy to get to efficiently, that has energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling and that is powered by renewable energy sources. If working from home, try to make your work environment as energy efficient as possible and switch to a renewable energy provider for your home.

Photo of impact hub westminster

#4 – Travel efficiently

Many of us travel for our work, either to the office, to see clients or to attend events such as WordCamps or team away days. Some basic tips to reduce travel emissions are:

  1. Travel less
  2. Move the fewest people possible
  3. Use efficient travel methods such as walking, cycling or train.  If you must drive, car pool and use an efficient (ideally electric) vehicle and whatever you do, try not to fly.

#5 – Organise low carbon events

Events like WordCamp Europe can have a huge impact in their own right, with people travelling from around the world to attend, powering the venues and filling up the buffet spread. A few ways we can reduce emissions from our events are:

  • Use central locations with good public transport links
  • Organise smaller, more local events
  • Promote sustainable transport (no partner airlines!)
  • Use energy efficient venues
  • Feed us up with local, plant based food with a small carbon footprint.

Crowd in the foyer at WordCamp Brighton

#6 – Choose positive clients

The impact of our work extends to the organisations that we are helping to be successful. We are huge community, so if we all commit to working with positive organisations and at least declining work from organisations that are major climate change offenders or deniers, we’ll be using market forces to give positive organisations a competitive advantage. You can read more about this in my post: ‘We are not spectators. We are professional accomplices’.

#7 – Learn about greening the web

Invest time in learning more about how we can use our work to transition to a zero carbon economy. There are lots of resources online but a great place to start is by reading the book Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick.

#8 – Tax yourself for carbon

There are many people who believe that a global tax on carbon emissions is necessary to accelerate the transition to zero carbon, yet governments are reluctant to implement this at this time. We can however experiment with implementing our own financial incentives to help focus our own minds on reducing our emissions. We have introduced our own self imposed carbon tax and donate the funds to the wonderful people at SolarAid.

#9 – Blog about it

WordPress is one of the world’s most powerful tools for sharing knowledge and experiences. By blogging about our ideas, attempts, successes and failures in trying to go zero carbon, we can all learn from each other and encourage progress within and beyond the WordPress community itself.

Is zero carbon really achievable?

It is easy to be defeatist and assume that reaching zero carbon is not viable at this time. This might be true, but it is also true that not trying is the greatest risk that we face. Prof. Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair 2008-2015 of the IPCC has stated that “The year 2020 is crucial… If CO2 emissions continue to rise beyond that date, the most ambitious mitigation goals will become unachievable.” I shouldn’t need to point out that 2020 is only 2.5 years away! A recent study in the journal Nature Communications stated that the world must reach zero carbon “well before” 2040 in order to ensure global warming does not go above 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

The evidence is increasingly suggesting that we have less time than we think. At Wholegrain we do not profess to be experts, to be anywhere even close to Zero Carbon WordPress or to have all the answers. But we do know that we need to take action to move in the right direction as fast as possible. So let’s start now, and work together to make the WordPress community zero carbon.

Are you in? Tweet us your commitment and share what you’re doing to help the WordPress community move towards Zero Carbon with the hashtag #ZeroCarbonWP