Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Yet, while the focus is often on polluting power plants, single-use plastics, deforestation, and fossil fuels, web technologies are the biggest least visible carbon culprits.
Inversely, it means that web technologies can be part of the solution. While web hosting companies like Platform.sh offer green hosting services, organizations like the Think Tank foraus – Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy use community platforms like Open Social to address critical questions around sustainable tech solutions.
How Sustainable is the Web?
Data Storage and Transferability
Many believe the web exists as a purely virtual world, but the internet is much more than just what pops up on browsers. All wifi networks represent outlets for thousands of kilometers of transcontinental cables and “the cloud” is made up of blinking servers eating up electricity. Each time someone refreshes a website, machines must retrieve information from these centers.
Recent research published in Nature journal states that “data centers contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions. In contrast, the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem has a carbon footprint on a par with the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel.”
Luca Tiralongo, (Open Social client) product and community manager at Greenpeace International, contextualizes a bit how this is everyone’s problem:
“We use technology from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep – and sometimes even while we sleep! But unfortunately, we don’t realize the impact of all this: how many of us know that an hour of Netflix has a huge carbon footprint?”
Luca continues to explain that while we can see single-use plastics cluttering beaches or the fumes from car exhausts floating into foggy cities, we don’t view the transference of electronic data as having any material impact on the world.
“It’s something that is not technically tangible, but it is there, and it’s huge,” he adds.
Every website has a carbon footprint directly related to how much data needs to be electronically stored, processed, and transferred each time a visit is loaded.
Portals like the Website Carbon Calculator can help see the footprint of most websites.
One of the biggest culprits is Youtube, with an annual carbon footprint of about 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (the same output as a city the size of Glasgow).
But it’s not just data transference (or streaming in Youtube’s case) that moves the needle. As machine learning and AI technologies become more widespread, the carbon footprint of web services is growing exponentially.
The massive computational power needed to run complex speech recognition, data processing, or content recommendation algorithms is exceptionally costly in energy consumption.
The web right now is not environmentally sustainable. But that doesn’t mean it has to remain that way.
How do We Make the Web More Sustainable?
At Greenpeace International, Luca looks after globally endorsed engagement technologies, including the online community platform created by Open Social (aka “Greenwire”). One of the critical requirements to keep using Open Social is to run on green hosting (as any Greenpeace website or web platform needs to be).
“There is no negotiation,” Luca explains, “either our vendors prove their web servers run on services powered by green energy or it’s a no-go”.
Open Social’s hosting partner, Platform.sh recently completed an audit with Greenly to determine steps that will significantly improve carbon emissions for the company and its clients (including Open Social) as they collectively move toward net zero.
The Greenly report offers a more detailed view of the Platform.sh green approach, CSR initiatives, carbon footprint, and strategic plan to reduce emissions further.
Here’s some of what Platform.sh confirmed:
- The infrastructure efficiency of the Platform.sh dedicated, triply redesigned hosting offer reduces its carbon footprint by 5x.
- By relocating apps to greener regions, their carbon footprint is reduced by up to 10x.
- Optimizing code performance decreases the consumption of underlying resources, reducing their carbon footprint by up to 20x.
One of the most effective ways to reduce a website’s carbon footprint is to switch to a green web host.
“We couldn’t agree to adopt Platform.sh for our Open Social platform if they didn’t offer this type of solution”.
According to Luca, it is not solely the responsibility of technology providers to offer sustainable solutions but also for organizations of any industry to make green hosting a supplier prerequisite.
In this way, organizations can actively drive change in the tech industry, resulting in green hosting becoming a much more mainstream option.
“Greenpeace advocates for clean technology,” says Luca, “adopting these is a tangible way to prove that it’s feasible. Everyone can do good things just by using green technologies”.
Technology giants like Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft continue their efforts to increase energy efficiency and reduce their carbon footprints.
Source: Greenpeace USA “Oil in the Cloud” report, 2020
For Luca, everyone with a considerable technology setup should feel responsible for their carbon offset.
“I understand that people have existing business models and stakeholders to satisfy, but the transition is inevitable if you ask me.”
Luca is pragmatic about the adoption of green hosting.
“A company with good leadership, good management, and good values that want to transition to clean energy and green hosting has to be conscious that it takes time, investment, and people to make it happen.”
But despite the initial investment, as Luca says, this is an effort that pays well in the long run, adding additional value to your product, services, and clients.
Today’s web applications are complex technology stacks that include databases, back-end systems, AI algorithms, and even specialized hardware used to complete complex calculations. Fintech is a great example.
Whether using mobile banking or online investment services, these websites need to do real-time data analysis, encryption, cyber security, access transaction histories, process payments, interact with banking infrastructures and systems, etc.
This is why foraus, a Swiss Think Tank on foreign policy, was commissioned to conduct one of their crowd-sourcing research projects on sustainable fintech, which the Sunflower foundation funded.
Eduardo Belinchon is the Digital Innovation Manager at foraus and manages their Open Social online community Policy Kitchen. foraus uses Policy Kitchen to post policy challenges to a broad community of stakeholders and crowd-source ideas and solutions that they can formulate into policy proposals. He mentions:
“We ran a challenge a couple of months ago that looked at global governance models in sustainable fintech.”
The participants debated questions such as::
- What is the environmental impact of technology used in the financial sector?
- How can the sector improve sustainability?
- How can we create mechanisms for this?
- How do fintech companies operate?
- Do we take their operating model into account when making sustainability recommendations?
The policy challenge consisted of a series of virtual workshops that gave experts, stakeholders, and other interested parties the chance to explore the role technology can play in addressing climate change issues.
“We are a grassroots think tank; we bring ideas from the civil society to policymakers,” says Eduardo, “But also, we focus on global governance. We have the UN sitting here in Geneva, and we have a good connection to the UN decision-makers. Which means we can bring those bottom-up ideas to the global debate arena.”
While foraus is not building sustainable tech, they drive the conversation, both in public and in policy and governance.
Part of what makes the work of foraus and Policy Kitchen important is that through the use of their Open Social online community, they also engage in creating awareness around sustainable tech solutions.
“We crowdsource ideas from the public,” says Eduardo, but at the same time, we see ourselves as having a kind of awareness-raising function, where we bring issues and raise concerns. We can elaborate more on the topic and different aspects and angles and introduce other narratives into the debate by bringing people together.”
A great example of this is their “Shaping a sustainable digital world” challenge conducted in 2020. The premise of this online community challenge was around the need to promote the active shaping of digital change in the interest of environmental goals.
The challenge included online workshop sessions in which participants split into thematic breakout groups to explore how digital transformation can respond to environmental challenges.
In a way, foraus uses digital transformation to respond to the climate crisis. When they launched their online community with Open Social in 2018, they were looking for a platform that would fit their existing participatory policy-making methodology and allow the public to debate and contribute to foreign policy questions in a more robust online forum.
Their recent endeavors show that they have used this platform to promote sustainable technology solutions and policy using web-based technologies.
Road Towards Green Web
The responsibility falls on all of us to adopt sustainable tech solutions to drive towards a green web. Open Social gives its clients the option of green hosting through its partnership with Platform.sh.
Online resources and communities such as climateaction.tech are available to help organizations embrace the change towards a sustainable web. Still, strong will and consistent commitment are the essential prerequisites to make this happen.
Find out how to effectively build your online community. Download The Association Community Compendium – How to harness the collective power of your members.