When we talk about reducing carbon emissions, it’s usually things like heating, transportation, utilities, and physical ways to reduce waste that come to mind. But did you know that internet usage, website hosting, and digital communications also consume a huge amount of energy?

To celebrate Earth Day - and let’s face it, she deserves some love this year - we’ve come up with seven easy ways you can address this digital waste and make sure your organization is energy-efficient and environmentally friendly on every level.

#1: So. Many. Emails.

On top of being everyone’s favourite office punching bag, the lowly email actually consumes a huge amount of energy. Why? Because every email you send or receive is sent, scanned for viruses, downloaded to your laptop / smartphone / watch, and saved forever. A standard email creates about 4 grams of CO2 emissions; a bigger email – say, one sent to a number of recipients, with attachments and lots of responses – can create up to 50 grams of CO2e.

Inbox Zero
Photo by Solen Feyissa / Unsplash

These emissions add up. For example, how many times a day do you send a quick “thank you” email? Even though the note is brief, the email still gets sent, scanned, and saved forever, which means your quick “thank you!” uses the same amount of energy as a longer message.

Let’s say you send 10 of these “thank you” emails per week. With 30 million Canadians just like you reinforcing our politeness stereotype via email, that translates to 40 tonnes of CO2e per day in Canada!

So how can you cut that down? There are a few simple changes that can lighten your environmental load.

  • Reduce the number of emails coming and going from your account. Only copy necessary people on your email. (Does Brad in Accounting really need to know?) Every additional recipient represents another instance of the email being received, scanned, and stored. By ensuring your emails only go to people who need to see them, you can cut back significantly on the CO2 emissions from each email. You can also clean your mailing lists and unsubscribe from anything you don’t regularly use.
  • Reduce the size of your emails. Attachments increase the size of an email, which raises the amount of energy it takes to send and receive. Try linking to files in cloud storage rather than sending them as attachments. (Bonus: this can make collaboration easier.)  
  • Cut back on emails altogether. Move your day-to-day communications onto a chat app like Slack, Teams, and Discord, which keep just one source of the message instead of multiple copies. Instead of sending that wasteful “thank you” email, you can send a quick chat and significantly reduce your CO2 emissions.

#2: Data Tracking In Your Browser

Do you ever get the feeling that advertisements follow you around the internet?
They do.

Photo by Siarhei Horbach / Unsplash

Most websites track your data, which means every search you conduct and every site you visit is being tracked and logged. Online marketers use tracking tools to measure the effectiveness of their advertising. And this tracking leads to more web traffic.

You can easily reduce this - and keep your interest in vintage toasters to yourself -  with a simple anti-tracking or content-blocking software like BitDefender; most popular browsers even have anti-tracking options built in. Anti-tracking and content-blocking softwares block advertising content and trackers from downloading, reducing the constant flow of your personal data and cutting down on the amount of energy consumed by your internet use. Bonus: this also protects your privacy.

#3 Your Website

It’s easy to forget that the internet itself produces CO2 emissions. The servers that power the internet  are working constantly and consume an enormous amount of energy. In fact, the internet consumes over 1 million megawatt-hours (Mwh) per day. This means that just by existing, your website is using energy. How can you make sure that it’s using that energy efficiently?

How green is my site?

The average website produces 1.5-7.0 grams of CO2 per page view. An extremely light website like the Musk Foundation website can produce as little as 0.009 grams of CO2 per page view. If you want to find out how much carbon your website produces, get a calculation at websitecarbon.com. They’ll tell you how much carbon your site produces and provide personalized recommendations on how to make your website greener. Sustainable Web Design By Tom Greenwood (published by A Book Apart) also provides an excellent guide to sustainable web design.

TL;DR

If you’re too short on time to read the whole book, but want to reduce the environmental impact of your website, try these three very simple ways to reduce its payload or download size:

  1. Reduce the size of your images. Use a compressing software like TinyPNG to keep your images small. Optimized images use less energy, and also make your website load faster.
  2. Trim down the javascript - Trimming down your javascript or CSS gets rid of unnecessary scripts that can slow your site down.
  3. Use caching software. You can use a plugin like W3 TotalCache on your Wordpress site to reduce your javascript and CSS and implement browser caching at the same time.  

Trimming down your website is a win-win-win situation. Not only is it better for the environment, it’s better for SEO, better for accessibility, and better conversion. Your website runs better for you when it runs better for the planet.

#4 Website Hosting

Even if your website’s load is light, an inefficient hosting server can still drive up your carbon emissions. Do your research on which hosting platforms use the most sustainable servers to make sure that you’re keeping your footprint as small as possible. Hint: Rebel is one of them.

What’s powering your site?

The simplest and most effective way to make sure your hosting company runs green is to find out where they draw their power. Since Quebec uses 99% renewable, hydroelectric energy, any servers in Montreal or Quebec City are a safe bet. Large data centres with servers based in Montreal and Quebec include Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft. For a small, and definitely green option, Rebel.com uses Montreal-based servers which run entirely on renewable energy.

To the Cloud!

Cloud hosting is the most energy efficient hosting option. It can continuously scale up and down systems to reflect the website’s usage patterns. Cloud hosting also unlocks serverless options, automation, and scaling for applications, and is always a safe bet for green hosting provision.

Use a CDN

A Content Distribution Network, or CDN, brings your content closer to your consumers. For example, a user in BC can receive information from a server in Alberta rather than in Montreal. CDNs are designed to prioritize your website’s efficiency, making your website as fast as possible. Both Cloudflare and Stackpath (formerly MaxCDN) have Wordpress plugins.

The best way to ensure your website is environmentally friendly is to ensure it’s running efficiently on renewable energy. Make sure you’re using green servers, look into cloud hosting, and consider using a CDN to reduce your site’s carbon footprint.

#5 e-waste

Even the greenest business eventually creates some electronic waste. Electronics, computers, monitors, and printer cartridges all become e-waste that can pollute soil and water with heavy metals. When you replace your electronics, don’t just throw the old ones in the landfill. There are a number of businesses and organizations that will take your used electronics and dispose of them safely.

  • CompuCorps can refurbish your old technology, remove your data, and if the device is still usable, they can accept it as a donation (and give you a donation receipt).
  • BestBuy and Staples both have electronics disposal programs. They send electronics to waste centres that take the components apart, dispose of heavy metals safely, and recycle what they can.

It’s easy to make sure your e-waste doesn’t end up in landfill, so make your mom proud and dispose of yours correctly.

Domestic appliances being recycled, SW London
Photo by John Cameron / Unsplash

#6 Work Habits

The way you use your electronics at work also affects their environmental impact.

  • Just like turning off your lights when you’re not in the room reduces your power usage, turning your computer off when you’re not using it (instead of simply putting it to sleep) saves energy.
  • Lowering the brightness on your monitor from 100% to 70% can save 20% of the screen’s power consumption. Using an ad blocker or tracking blocker is another way to save power.
  • Try switching your search engine to Ecosia! This search engine funds tree planting with the profit it makes from online searches and is a very easy way to help the environment at work.

#7 Get Involved!

There are a lot of people working on solutions to make tech work greener. Consider getting involved with ClimateAction.tech, a community of tech workers figuring out how to make their work more sustainable.

In addition to brainstorming and discussing solutions, ClimateAction started #LetsGreenTheWeb, a campaign to reduce the carbon emissions of websites. It also organized the Digital Climate Strike in 2019, when companies agreed to shut down their websites and e-commerce for a day to conserve energy. If you want to learn more about ClimateAction, you can watch the ClimateActionTech TedX talk, or join the Slack group and get in on the conversation!

Changes to the environmental impact of digital business can only come from businesses and individuals deciding to make a change. Anyone can make a difference: we can reduce our carbon footprint and improve CO2 emissions from our own inboxes, search engines, and websites. What will you try first?  

This article was also presented as part of Your Green Business Speaker Series host The EnviroCentre in Ottawa.