How the Internet Can Negatively Impact the Environment and How We Can Fix ItDecember 28, 2021
Digitization has transformed life in the 21st century. Emails and electronic documents have greatly reduced the need for paper, and the ability to share ideas online has helped climate scientists and activists continue the campaign against climate change.
However, that revolution has come at a cost. The internet and the data centers which store our information have a significant carbon footprint that damages the environment and emits tonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere every year — climate scientists can even track the amount of carbon needed to send emails, complete downloads, or view content-rich web pages.
Clearly, widespread use of the internet isn’t going to slow down. So, what can be done to make the internet more “green”?
Good UX can streamline usage and reduce the carbon footprint of individual websites. This is particularly important, as a recent study from Lancaster University found that the carbon footprint of the internet and the devices which support usage accounts for 3.7% of our total carbon footprint — about the same amount as the airline industry. This is largely fueled by devices and data centers that utilize massive amounts of energy globally. To combat this, website designers must leverage sustainable user experience (UX) design.
While the guidance for sustainable UX design is always changing, developers and designers should be energy efficient. To do this, designers should ensure that key information is prioritized within the site’s map and utilize an FAQ page that reduces the amount of wasted “clicks” on a site.
Of course, these simple steps are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sustainable UX design. To find out which steps a sustainability-oriented designer should take, they should start by completing an environmental audit of the site to assess the efficiency of their pages. This audit can assess:
- Unnecessary clicks for navigation
- File size
- Dead ends or wasted pages
- The intuitiveness of site design
While assessing a site UX from a sustainability perspective is important, it is still necessary to replace physical, resource-heavy interactions with digitized alternatives like e-signatures and digital documents. These digital alternatives do carry a carbon footprint, but it is typically still lower than the footprint associated with physical transactions.
Better Usage Habits
Sustainable UX design helps us all navigate the web with a smaller footprint. However, we can also break down our personal usage. This is particularly important as data-rich features like sending an email carry a hefty carbon footprint which, according to Mike Berners-Lee, contribute between 0.3-50 g of carbon per message.
While reducing the volume of emails we send alone won’t make a meaningful difference to our global footprint, taking a more sustainable approach to internet usage can help reduce our individual footprints while we wait for providers to catch up. But, to do so, we must change our usage habits.
Like many green habits, the first lessons should start at home. Parents can actively teach children about positive digital habits that will encourage them to power down more often. Parents can also model healthy and environmentally conscious behavior by limiting screen time and using smart trackers which utilize time restrictions to avoid overuse that this bad for mental health and the environment.
Choose a Green Provider
While reducing individual usage plays an important role in lowering carbon emissions, it is vital that providers “go green” in the coming years. That’s because much of our usage is required for work, and asking people to reduce their internet usage is unlikely to catch on globally. So, like many of the climate challenges we face, the burden of responsibility should fall more on businesses and governments than it does on individual consumers.
Luckily, many companies are already lining up to offer green broadband services. These providers ensure that their offices and stores are as renewable as possible and are often powered by solar panels rather than electricity grids. They also encourage their employees to use public transport for their daily commutes and sponsor initiatives like tree-planting drives and preservation efforts to offset their carbon footprint.
As a consumer, you can help these practices go mainstream by leveraging your spending power to support companies that have made commitments to going green. This kind of market pressure has already caught on in the UK, where consumers can stick with the nation’s largest provider, Sky, which sets off 100% of their emissions and is now carbon neutral.
In the US, finding a climate-conscious provider who matches your ideals is a little harder. However, companies like Switch are beginning to catch on and are opening sustainable data centers that rely on 100% renewable energy to power their computer systems and storage. This helps everyone combat their usage footprint, and exhibits a strong commitment to going green.
We must start to see the internet in the same way we view our other utilities — a necessary service which, left unchecked, can lead to high carbon emissions and environmental damage. To overcome this issue, we should advocate for green broadband alternatives and should use our spending power to encourage more providers to commit to net-zero practices.
We can also work to reduce our carbon footprint by creating intuitive, carbon-conscious user experiences on websites, and can take proactive steps to reduce internet usage while we wait for government regulations or market trends that will force providers to improve their carbon footprint.