The environmental impact and resilliency of the web

TL;DR — Can we have a chapter on the environmental impact of the web in the next almanac, please?

Recent scary IPCC report

A couple of days ago the IPCC released their latest report the climate crisis.

The report is pretty damning — global catastrophe is inevitable — but we can make it less bad, by emitting less greenhouse gases.

The last 18 months have been disruptive, traumatic, and life-changing. It’s forced us to take stock of our lives and what really matters.

For me, that’s meant finally working out what I’m going to do about the climate crisis. Which is not such an easy question to answer.

Solutions to the climate crisis tend to focus on either…

  • tiny personal changes e.g. turning off a light switch
  • or huge global changes e.g. turning off the fossil fuel industry

Viewing the solution through either of these lenses guides us towards low-impact actions. Cycling to work is a drop in the ocean, signing a petition is blowing against the wind. It makes the whole problem seem hopeless.

We need a better lens to view the problem, so we can better find out what we can do, and I found a good one from this podcast (warning annoying spotify link):

How to save a planet — is your carbon footprint bs?

Finding your place in the climate movement

In the podcast Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson says what you should do:

Draw (or imagine) a venn diagram with three circles.

  1. What are you good at?
  2. What brings you joy?
  3. What is the work that needs doing?

The intersection of these three circles is what you should do. So for me, that venn diagram looks like this:

  1. Making websites, coding, problem solving
  2. Making websites, learning
  3. Reducing the carbon emmissions of the internet, communicating climate crisis information, recruiting more climate activists

I imagine if you are on this forum your venn diagram may look pretty similar.

This exercise really helped me hone in on what I want to do. So I started researching the effects of the web on climate — in search of some specific problems to solve.

The web’s effect on climate

The same figure kept coming up, that around 3% or 5% of global carbon emmissions are from the internet. Which is a lot, and tells us the problem is real. There’s a bunch of solutions to this problem, but for a web developer, the solution seems to be — send less data.

This is the crux of the book Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood, and the main metric of online calculators like this one. Seems simple.

Many people have pointed out to me that most of internet is not websites, it’s streaming video — and this is true. Apparently about 60% of the data is video. Browsing the web makes up just 13%.

I suspect there is something wrong with this way of looking at it. It fails to take into account the efficiency of video streaming per byte in a big city, compared with the energy use to download react.js on a 2G connection in a rural area.

It also doesn’t account for the multiple connections and dns lookups, a single web page makes, compared with the one source of a video.

We need more measurements

I know there are lots of other factors that are well beyond me, but which may not be beyond the great minds of the http archive. So, I’d love to see the next almanac include a chapter on climate including:

  • Some estimate on website carbon emmissions
  • A comparison to other parts of the internet. e.g. IoT devices, streaming, gaming.
  • How much carbon emmissions could be prevented through optimising. e.g. Images, Video, Fonts?
  • What are the effects of having resources from different domains?
  • How much energy comes from renewables?
  • How websites are prepared for internet outages causes floods, forrest fires etc. — e.g. does critical information fail to load with very low bandwidth?

What are your thoughts?

If you have been wondering what to do about the climate crisis, I hope you found the venn diagram thing helpful.

Please let me know your thoughts on this, or any other questions you can think of related to this, as I’d like to find answers.

Hi @Nathaniel thanks for this excellent proposal. We’re currently heads-down on the 2021 edition but I would strongly encourage you to fill out the 2022 interest form to be notified when we’re ready to start coordinating on next year’s Web Almanac. If we’re able to assemble a team to author/review/analyze for this chapter, I’d love to see it published. @cqueern had also expressed interest in this topic, so I’m hopeful that we can make it a top-level chapter next year.

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Thanks @rviscomi, that’s great to her. I’ll fill out the interest form.