Andreas Späth

How green is your web surfing?

2014-09-29 07:41

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Did you think about the carbon emissions you’ve just caused by clicking on the link to read this article, for instance? When writing it, did I consider whether doing so could have more negative than positive effects on climate change?

A new browser add-on I’ve come across recently may help to improve our perspective.

Regardless of what device you use, every time you read an email, watch a YouTube video or compose a blog post, chances are that you’re contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. You might be spending hours every day navigating virtual worlds, but the effects make themselves felt in the real one.

The gadgets you use to access the internet (your computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.) as well as other associated equipment from monitors to Wi-Fi routers all run on electricity, which, for the most part, is generated by burning fossil fuels. Although the amount of CO2 that gets spewed into the atmosphere every time you update your Facebook status is miniscule, it all adds up.

Now take into account the fact that you’re only one of many millions of people who use the internet every day, that web usage continues to grow by several hundred percent annually and that the infrastructure needed to make all of this possible involves millions of energy-hungry computer servers housed in data centres around the planet.

The carbon footprint of an individual tweet may be vanishingly tiny, but that of the internet as a whole is massive. The figures are staggering:

- The average web server apparently causes carbon emissions comparable to those of an SUV.

- Two trillion Google web searches annually cause 400 000 tons of CO2 emissions and 72 billion hours of YouTube videos watched every year result in 5 million tonnes. Spam emails alone generate the CO2 emissions equivalent to those of over a million cars.

- If the internet was a country, it would have the world’s sixth highest electricity consumption after the USA, China, Japan, Russia and India.

- The worldwide IT industry is thought to use on the order of 30 gigawatts of electricity per year, releasing over 800 million tonnes of CO2, which equates to around 2% of global emissions (a figure which is expected to double by 2020).

There are, of course, ways of improving this situation. While most of the major internet companies, including Amazon, Twitter, Google and Facebook, still provide their services using mostly dirty fossil fuel and nuclear power, some have made a commitment to moving to renewable energy sources.

Research suggests that many data centres could lower their carbon emissions by nearly 90% through better energy management and the introduction of more efficient equipment.

Some web hosting companies provide greener services by either generating their own renewable energy, buying only certified green electricity or offsetting their emissions through carbon credits and similar mechanisms. But how are you and I supposed to know which sites are running on climate-friendly power and which ones are not?

The Green Web add-on for internet browsers provides you with an instant indication of the clean energy credentials of any website you’re visiting. It’s available for free from the Green Web Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in the Netherlands.

Wherever your online travels take you, a small icon indicates whether the website you’re currently on is hosted by a service provider powered using renewable energy or not. In addition, hyperlinks to renewable energy hosted sites are underlined in green and such sites are also flagged in searches with popular search engines.

Based on the usage of the add-on, the Green Web Foundation is compiling lists of green and not-so-green websites. The latter are contacted to find out if and when they are planning to change to renewable energy.

The organisation wants to help cajole 80% of the internet to be run on clean energy by 2020. An ambitious, but not impossible target: in the Netherlands, increasing awareness by internet users and service providers has increased this figure from 13% in 2009 to over 60% today.

The Green Web add-on makes for some revealing web surfing. It suggests that very few of the websites I regularly visit (including this one), other major online news outlets, blogging sites that I use for my own websites and even the homepages of many environmental organisations, are not powered by renewable energy. Try it out yourself – it’s quite an eye opener.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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