It’s Time To Start Thinking About
The Environmental Impact
of your Online Business
Your online business is not as clean as you think…
Internet use is having an increasing and significant impact on the environment. Yet most owners of online businesses seem to have little awareness of the topic. Even within the tech industry, if some of us are talking about it, it’s a tiny minority.
In March 2020 the COVID-19 disease made itself known. This led to a much higher usage of online resources and a much greater dependency on technology. One outcome of this has been a realisation of how much even non-tech workers depend on technology. This is especially true among business owners whose businesses needed to shift online.
The growing awareness is that all those tiny tasks we perform – minute by minute and day by day – might be adding up to a total energy usage that has more than a trivial significance.
I work daily with online business owners and people in the tech world. For the most part they are a well-educated and intelligent group of people. It’s ironic that most seem to be unable to realise how such massive amounts of computing power and electricity use can be sustained.
For most readers, the question of whether climate change is happening is no longer something that needs to be asked. Instead, there is now growing concern about what each of us as individuals – and especially as responsible businesses – can do about it.
This article will attempt to direct the spotlight of attention on
- how all the energy needed for our online business use adds up
- what the likely impact of that total might be and
- to address some small steps you can take to do something about it.
Ironically, you’ll need an electronic, carbon-producing device to read it.
Despite our best intentions to do good with our online businesses, we’re actually running them using a highly polluting medium – technology – and the impact is growing rapidly.
You should understand that your technology usage is significant and something to be very mindful of. Knowing this impact of your business will likely be news to many, surprising to most and disturbing to a few.
NOTE: Wherever I’ve quoted statistics here, please – take them with a grain of salt. Measuring the carbon production of any activity across its entire supply chain is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. I’ve found much conflicting evidence and statistics, sometimes from the same source. So, again – a grain of salt.
1 Data Centres
What they are
Data centres are warehouses filled with the web servers, routers and hard drive storage your business needs to run.
Awareness of these data centres is low but they are key to many of the services businesses use daily. This was brought home to many businesses in March 2021; a data centre in France belonging to one of the world’s largest hosting companies burned down with a complete loss of data. Many companies were without their website and other data for days.
During COVID lockdowns, governments classified data centres as essential services. Staff were included as key workers so these sites could keep running, much like law enforcement and health care. Websites stayed online, our businesses could access their data and we could communicate as well as ever.
Currently about 7% of the planet’s energy is used to power these data centres. That figure is expected to reach 14% of global emissions by 2040.
Not only do the huge numbers of computers need power 24×7. This constant up-time produces energy in the form of heat; much of the energy used in a traditional data centre goes toward cooling systems.
And they’re a long way from being efficient. A study showed 40% of the servers in these datacentres consume 66% of the energy, to produce only 7% of the computing capacity!
Let’s not ignore the rest of the warehouse’s supply chain. Someone manufactured all these computers. Doing that also used resources: energy, materials such as metals and plastics, specialised machinery, transport, people. It’s a giant energy-gobbling machine which needs constant feeding.
The EIA projects an almost 50% increase in world energy use by 2050. It behoves us to get these centres produced and running on cleaner electricity.
What your business can do
- Use companies whose data centres run on renewable energy. But be careful here! Many companies that claim to use renewable energy actually use fossil fuel as their main energy source. Purchasing renewable energy or carbon offsets allows them to claim they run on clean energy – it’s not the same thing.
- Use companies trying to make things better. For instance, eBay achieved a massive 85% reduction in energy consumption through system design adjustments.
What it is
All the technology used by our small business runs on machines. Manufacture of these machines consumes physical resources and energy. So does their transport around the globe..
Electronic waste or eWaste. The biggest issue here is the ever-shorter lifespan of equipment. this is not only due to the rapid rate of technical change. Many firms produce goods based on planned obsolescence. They produce equipment that will not last very long. This means even the most conscious of us still need to replace tech more often than we’d like.
In 2019, the UN recorded more than 50 million tonnes of e-waste going into landfills. This waste contains toxic substances like lead, mercury and cadmium. These poisons leech into the soil and into water supplies. Where does it go exactly? Much of it is transported around the globe to poorer countries. It’s estimated about 80% of ewaste is not recycled. Europe recycles about 42% of its ewaste, the US, just 9%.
The huge increase in “smart” devices – devices that can connect to the internet – only adds to the problem. It means that ewaste is set to become a huge problem in the very near future.
What you can do
- There’s a simple principle you can use to stay mindful of how much resources you’re using in any area: Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle… in that order.
- More than 50% of the carbon footprint of a smartphone or PC is produced during manufacturing and transport. So, simply using your hardware for longer and replacing it only when necessary will have a big impact. An old PC can be used as a server for low-intensity work such as email, printing or network-based backups. My own smartphone is a 5-year old low-spec Samsung and I use an 8-year old PC as my main desktop machine. (Admittedly, this latter is showing signs of struggling with Windows bloat these days.)
- Use upcycled products – refurbished smartphones are widely available. Failing that, focus on recycled and renewable products. Become a customer of companies who are trying to do better in this area.
- When recycling, know where your junk is being sent. Use recycling companies that have been independently vetted by someone like e-stewards.org. For example, in the U.S., Staples stores use certified recyclers in their electronics recycling program. Many recyclers of ewaste don’t even know where it ends up.
- Buy from manufacturers like Cisco and Dell who pledge to tackle the issue by embracing a more circular economy.
What it is
The internet has constant traffic. Some of this it needs for it’s own operation. The rest, our businesses send and receive. This is in the form of emails, documents, phone calls, video calls, uploading and downloading files and software.
I’ve seen figures that put the average website page view’s carbon use at 1.76 grams and I’ve seen others claim it’s more than two and a half times that. Clearly, measuring such things is difficult and imprecise without a full lifecycle assessment. It should be clear, though, that requesting, downloading and displaying a web page requires electricity. This in turn produces carbon. The page size, fonts used, image size and resolution all matter – the bigger, the greater the footprint.
A surprising side-effect of the FB outage in October 2021 was a huge surge in general internet traffic, according to Cloudflare. Why? Because when the FB site didn’t load at once, millions of users tried to load it again. And again. And again. This meant billions of page load requests more than usual and more than necessary.
A typical business email user produces the same amount of carbon in a year as a car driving 200 km. If everyone in the UK sent one less email per day it would have the same effect as removing 3,334 diesel cars from the roads. So, there’s no need to send that “thank you” email.
Obviously email contents can vary hugely. I’ve seen customers (including one in the business sustainability area) using email as their main document sharing and storage tool. They regularly send huge attachments to multiple recipients, edit them and then email them back to everyone again. Sending a link to a shared online document would lower their footprint. As a bonus they could incorporate habits such as these into their client training and other servioce offerings.
For communications, SMS produces probably the lowest amount of carbon. A Whatsapp message is slightly less than an email.
The last medium I’ll touch on here is video meetings. About 96% of the footprint of a video meeting comes from the video image itself. So, once you’ve made the introductions, turn off those cameras.
What you can do
As I mentioned above:
- send less emails
- avoid attachments and images in the email
- turn off the camera unless it’s necessary
What it is
I hear you – how can a quick little search be a problem? Well, it isn’t, on it’s own. But it’s not alone: according to Google, an average user searches 25 times per day. This means Google processes 63,000 searches per second or 5.6 billion searches each day.
That sounds like a lot so let’s work it out.
(It’s a long time since I earned my Maths degree so these are some very rough and ready calculations based on some I did about a year ago and updated with claimed search volumes from today.)
Google estimates that their average user produces about 8g of CO2 per day using their products but, again, it’s the scale that matters.
A search costs about 0.2 g of CO2, again according to Google.
At 5.6 billion searches per day that works out at
5, 600, 000, 000 * 0.2 = 1, 120, 000, 000g = 1, 120, 000 kg
That’s 1,120 tonnes of CO2 per day from Google searches.
Now, let’s assume the average person’s CO2 production is 12.3 tonnes annually (the average of the highest and lowest per capita countries: China 4.6 tonnes, Australia 20 tonnes), that’s 34 kilos per day, or 0.034 tonnes.
1,120 / .034 = 32,941
The 1,120 tonnes of CO2 produced by Google daily is equivalent to the footprint of about 33,000 people.
Do your search habits sound a bit more impactful now?
What Google can do
I’m not sure how Google calculates the carbon produced by a single search but they claim to be
- climate neutral since 2007
- running on renewable energy since 2017
- the world’s largest business consumer of renewable energy.
- They are also moving to eliminate their entire carbon legacy, i.e. they’ll compensate for all the carbon they’ve ever produced.
Noble goals indeed and many big tech companies have made announcements in the same vein. But the truth is actually not so black and white.
Many companies simply calculate how much energy they use and then either buy offsets against that amount (e.g. by planting trees) or they purchase renewable energy in similar volumes. In reality, the energy running the data centers is still coming from the local grid and much of that is of course still produced directly by fossil fuels.
Considering the search volumes mentioned above, not to mention all of the warehouses full of machinery needed to run all of Google’s other services (Google docs, Gmail, Maps etc. etc.), this just isn’t good enough. Let’s hope they come through on their promises sooner rather than later.
What it is
Flying has long been the yardstick by which we measure other forms of pollution. It’s easy to see why: one flight from London to Honk Kong produces about as much carbon as
- the production of 2,300 paperback novels,
- an average UK person produces for 3 months or
- an average person in Sri Lanka produces in 3 years.
Bill Gate’s impact
In 2017 Bill Gates produced about 1,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide through flying.
To put that in perspective, the average UK person produces around 12 tonnes of CO2 every year. It’s ironic since the Gates’ are so focussed on philantropy. Maybe that’s part of the price of getting things done on grand scales.
But flying’s not the only culprit; the vast majority of drivers are still driving alone in a fossil-fueled vehicle which could transport at least 4 people.
What can you do
Use public transport, walk, cycle, use electric cars, car pool. Only fly when essential; a Zoom meeting still has much less of an impact than an airplane.
What it is
It’s not really surprising that much of technology is used for seemingly trivial purposes such as discovering what a celebrity wore to dinner last night or checking how many likes your recent Instagram selfie pout has earned. This is true in the workplace as much as anywhere else. We need to be entertained and we crave approval. So what’s the harm in sending a little image across the web?
As with most things online, the impact comes from sheer scale. Need some examples?
Soccer star Ronaldo has the largest Instagram following in the world: 367 Million followers as of November 2021. If all his followers viewed his latest pose by the pool it would need an estimated 24 Mwh of electricity. This is equivalent to 5 to 6 years of electricity consumption of an average UK household, according to Channel 4’s Dispatches program.
Watching videos online accounts for about 60% of all internet traffic. One third of that is pornography. From Netflix to YouTube to porn, it adds up.
Despacito by Luis Fonsi, has been viewed more than 6 billion times on Youtube. Depending on the assumptions used, the energy consumed by watching this video to date could be anything between 60 GWh to 900 GWh. (The huge range tells you how far away we are from having any real idea how to measure such things.)
To give you some perspective let’s use the assumptions used in the example above: one UK household uses 3Mwh per year. 60 GWh is the annual consumption of about 20,000 UK households. 900 GWh is around 300,000 households. According to the Eureca project, this is about the same as the annual electricity consumption of Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierre Leone and the Central African Republic – together!
I haven’t touched on massive online gaming or popular audio services like Soundloud but you get the idea – the scale is huge.
And yes, this affects your business: three quarters of people listen to music while working, much of this via smartphone, PC or laptop.
Cryptocurrencies and NFTs are far from mainstream topics at the moment, so I’ll just briefly mention them here. They are frequently mentioned as having particularly large carbon footprints since blockchain technology in general requires significant amounts of computing power (on purpose, to make it difficult). This makes them “ecological nightmares” according to the Verve.
For instance, Take “Space Cat,” an NFT that’s basically a GIF of a cat in a rocket heading to the Moon. Yes, really. Space Cat’s carbon footprint is equivalent to an EU resident’s electricity usage for two months, according to the website cryptoart.wtf. (The owner has since taken down the site because (s)he believes it sparked unethical behaviour).
What can you do
I enjoy music and white noise machines as much as anyone but there’s always something you can do to lower your energy use.
- Turn it off
- Listen or watch at set times and for a limited time
- Listen to an older FM station while they’re still available (many countries are phasing FM out within the next few years.).
- If listening on YouTube, play audio-only videos that use up to 90% less energy.
- And stop checking out Ronaldo by the pool.
- Organise your own carbon offsets through Wren or get someone like the Web Neutral Project to do it for you
Conclusion – It’s Time To Get Mindful
To be honest, digital technology is still a small fraction of your emissions compared with, say, flying even once a year. But at this stage every bit of CO2 saved is significant. Everything affects everything so everything matters.
I hope you can now see that, large or small, your business carbon footprint matters. More to the point, I also hope you’re now more mindful of where you and your business can do things in a better fashion.
Every online business needs technology to run that business.
But not every business owner knows how to manage that technology. For 20 years Seán witnessed the frustrations faced by people who couldn’t do the good they wanted to in the world because the technology they had to use was in their way.
Now he takes care of it all for them through WordPressforGood.com
P.S. No, I didn’t attempt to calculate the carbon impact of the hours of research and writing this post.
P.P.S. Please note that in this article I am not voicing an opinion on global warming or any other factor of a so-called climate crisis. Whether or not it exists, it makes simple sense to me to reduce energy consumption and waste so we can live as closely as possible with the planet we’ve grown out of.
Depending on your tolerance for technical details, all of the information in this article can be found online from the following – and many other – sources.