A call to arms against the internet’s carbon footprint
The terms “climate” and “software” are everywhere. At first glance, there is no obvious connection between the two. But the hidden link between these two areas constantly defines our daily lives, so it’s worth getting informed. In 2014, the IT sector ranked fourth in global energy consumption. According to a “worst case scenario” estimation, the proportion of energy consumed by infrastructure often termed “the internet” (e.g. networks, data centers and cloud services) has increased by a third to around 50% over the last 5 years (see figure: Distribution of Energy Consumption in the IT Sector 2012 vs. 2017). In their annual “ClickGreen Report”, Greenpeace assesses the environmental footprint of the internet as a whole and its largest players (Google, Facebook, Amazon etc.). Just like our flights and car journeys, the internet also impacts our environment.
There are people that like to drive, people that only use a car where necessary, and people that generally avoid car travel. I belong to the first group. I like to drive fast even when I’m not in any particular rush. And sometimes I use my car because it’s easier. I’m almost thirty and am employed as a Software Engineer at Ergosign, a digital agency for user experience design. I would call myself a “tech head”. I am probably a little more consumption-oriented than the average German and am happy to spend money on things that I don’t necessarily need - technical trinkets if you like. I used the Umwelt Bundesamt’s CO2 calculator (http://uba.co2-rechner.de) to work out my carbon footprint based on my lifestyle. At around 16t of CO2 per year, mine is considerably above average when compared to the average German score of 11t per year. But why am I telling you all of this?
We don’t go around spewing out the greenhouse gas CO2 with everything we do. But everything we do as humans is linked to a certain measurable amount of waste or emissions. This waste could be almost anything. Obvious examples include plastic waste, electronic waste or specific greenhouse gasses such as CO2 created by car or plane travel.
Of course, CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas, and electronic and plastic waste are not the only ways we put pressure on our environment. In order to keep things comparable, a CO2 equivalent can be calculated for each type of emission or waste. It’s the amount of CO2 that would cause as much strain on the environment as the specific waste or emissions.
When we apply this to my work in software and product development, it doesn’t just matter how sustainably I work, or how much CO2 I save during my work, but also the environmental footprints of the products I work on. So, above all, the process involved in making a sustainable software or hardware product is vital. The amount of CO2 created on the path to a finished product is added to the complete product’s CO2 footprint. It’s not just about saving costs and resources for the business, but also increasing usability to improve the planet a little.
“Help save the planet” of course sounds a little idealistic, but it contains a key concept that shouldn’t be underestimated. We can actually help the planet when we consider the reach of a design or development decision.
A simplified example: let’s say you’re developing a smartphone app. You’ve managed to get your app well known and have several million users - they all use exactly the same product. The ecological sustainability of your app multiplies as your users multiply. Software products such as apps can be distributed especially rapidly. Just head to the AppStore, download and then the “sustainable” or not so sustainable app is up and running on another device.
Your app will most probably use the internet. Each transfer of data via the internet is processed by multiple services within the “digital supply chain” without the user explicitly being aware of this. Each of these services uses electricity in the simplest sense, whereby each use results in a quantifiable CO2 equivalent for the energy consumed. So with each internet access, the CO2 footprint of your app grows. So a more “efficient” use of the internet can improve the CO2 balance of each individual instance of your app. When you consider all use of the app, the amount of energy saved, or its CO2 equivalent, can be immense.
Anything that uses the internet has an impact on our environment. Streaming a song on Spotify, sending a WhatsApp message, visiting a website, sending an email, searching something on Google or even a simple Tweet. All of this has an environmental impact that can be calculated in terms of a CO2 equivalent. Each Tweet on Twitter is equivalent to 0.02g CO2 (valid as of April 19th 2010, Jaymi Heimbuch - Treehugger Blog). This means that Donald Trump alone has created almost a kilo of CO2 since his Twitter account was set up. 0.02g might not sound like a lot. But with Twitter’s huge user base sending out 6,000 Tweets per second, a CO2 equivalent of 120g is generated each second. This amounts to 10t of CO2 per day just through Tweets - this almost amounts to the annual CO2 equivalent of the average German.
Internet use isn’t the only way to improve the overall carbon footprint of many devices and software programs. There is a variety of ways to improve the efficiency of a product in terms of environmental sustainability without having to change the product itself. Often, products may have little to no impact on energy consumption. My washing machine, for example, has an eco mode that I almost never use. Not because I actively refuse to save energy, but because I have to use complicated controls to set it up. An unnecessary hurdle for which there is a simple solution. In principle, all programs could save energy by washing more slowly and using less water and power. I could have to make the effort to use a “more energy” option if I wanted my laundry done more quickly. I would have to actively decide to use more energy for a specific purpose. A sustainable design concept would take the hurdle away that is preventing the user from saving energy, making this option easier.
Everyone can be supported in reducing their energy consumption and improving their carbon footprint without sacrificing comfort and ease of use. This method of gently supporting the user in taking responsibility for their carbon footprint is called “green defaults”. The responsibility for a “reasonable” carbon footprint doesn’t just lie with the user and their behavior, but also with the product’s developers and UX designers. Concepts such as “green UX”, sustainable user experience, and “green development”, sustainable and efficient development as well as the technologies used are becoming more and more important.
Today, new technologies are being developed rapidly, and software has become an integral part of even the most banal objects. In many products, the concern is no longer just practicality, rather the way in which something happens. Software efficiency and sustainability play an important role. It’s more important than ever to consider concepts such as sustainability and efficiency at the very beginning of a development process, from a technical as well as a user-oriented perspective. “Every little bit helps”.
Florian Faßnacht has been a Software Engineer and UX Developer at Ergosign GmbH since 2015. He studied Electronics and IT and, alongside his work in the industrial and automotive context at Ergosign, he is also interested in innovative and sustainable technological solutions for all kinds of everyday problems.