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Websites today come with a whole host of bells and whistles, from garish animations to autoplay video. If you hate those features, you’re right to: not only are they annoying – they are also bad for the planet.
According to online carbon calculator Website Carbon, the average website produces 1.76g of CO2 for every page view; so a site with 100,000 page views per month emits 1,760kg of CO2 every year. The more complex a website is, the more energy it requires to load – and the greater its climate impact. Scale that up to the whole internet and you’ve got a big problem. “The internet essentially the largest coal-fired machine on the entire planet,” says Jack Amend, the founder of Web Neutral Project, an organisation that helps tackle websites’ carbon footprints.
A simple, stripped-back website like Low Tech Magazine produces just 0.24g of CO2 per page view; in contrast, a site with video autoplay features, such as 11 Coffee & Co, generates a hefty 10.08g of CO2 per page view. (The website for Elon and Kimbal Musk’s foundation – comprised of seven lines of text on a white background – is among the cleanest on the web, producing only 0.39kg of CO2 per year.) And according to figures from the HTTP Archive, websites have only become less efficient over the years: today, the average web page weighs in at around 2MB, compared with less than 500KB back in 2010.
Awareness about internet pollution is growing, in part thanks to a breed of eco-minded companies designing websites in line with carbon minimisation principles. “Until quite recently, the environmental impact of the internet wasn’t something that people really thought about,” says Vineeta Greenwood, account director at design agency Wholegrain Digital. “However, we are in a state of climate emergency, and creating a sustainable internet is just one action that we can and must take.”
According to Greenwood, one of the most effective ways to reduce a website’s carbon footprint is to switch to a green web host – essentially, a hosting company whose operations are powered by renewable energy. One of these is GreenGeeks, which claims to put three times the amount of power it consumes when hosting over 600,000 websites back into the grid via renewable energy certificates.
But reducing emissions can also be as simple as limiting the number of images that feature on each web page. “Images are the single largest contributors to page weight. The more images you use and the larger those image files, the more data needs to be transferred and the more energy is required,” Greenwood explains. “Opting for SVG graphics instead of formats like JPEG, PNG and GIF can help decrease image size, and you can use a compression tool to reduce it even more.” Additionally, she recommends swapping custom fonts for system fonts, which are already preinstalled on most devices, to further lower emissions.
But climate-friendly web design does not necessarily mean having to compromise on aesthetics. “Good design should always be thoughtful. A sustainably designed and built website isn’t just better for the planet and your business’s carbon footprint; it should also mean a faster-loading, more accessible experience for the user,” says Matt Hocking, the director of B Corp-certified web design agency Leap. “Ask yourself, do I really need this many photos or that visual interaction?”
A case in point is Volkswagen Canada’s Carbon-Neutral Net. Launched in February 2021, the microsite – which showcases the brand’s electric vehicles – is the brainchild of Wholegrain Digital and TYPE 1, a team made up of people from creative agencies TAXI and Wunderman Thomson. Web pages are rendered in black and white rather than colour. Conventional images are replaced by mosaics of low-data ASCII text characters, which create the illusion of vehicle silhouettes. In the backend, coding has been streamlined to further reduce page weight. According to Allen Kwong, creative director at TYPE 1 and TAXI, browsing this website produces an average of just 0.022g of CO2 per page view versus an average of 1.76g.
Amsterdam-based design studio FormaFantasma went one step further in its website overhaul earlier this year. It goes back to basics: a plain white background, system typefaces like Arial and Times New Roman, minimal font weights and classic blue hyperlinks. Pictures are kept small, and site visitors have the option to enlarge them; information about the file weight of each full-size image is visible if they hover over them. The entire site can be viewed in dark mode to reduce screen brightness and energy consumption.
“The aesthetic of our website is partly influenced by the original world wide web pages. We are also inspired by Wikipedia’s intuitive navigation. We have summaries at the top of each page, notes in the body text, and footnotes with external links,” explains FormaFantasma co-founder Simone Farresin. “Our interest is to make our website as energy-efficient as possible. The design is intended to be as clear and informative as possible to help visitors avoid loading unwanted content.”
Climate-friendly websites are still very much in the minority; after all, there are 1.83 billion websites on the internet today, most of which do not observe carbon-lite design principles. However, interest in digital sustainability is slowly growing. To date, over 1,360 individuals and companies, including Google, have signed the Sustainable Web Manifesto since 2019, pledging their commitment to create a more sustainable internet.
“The web is growing at an incredible pace,” says Amend explains. “With 51 per cent of the world’s population still lacking access to the internet, we are at a critical juncture where we must decide how the internet of the future is built,” he says. “Do we start creating a sustainable internet where users are informed and engaged about the impacts of their digital habits? Or do we continue the status quo and let the carbon intensity of our digital lives grow out of control?”
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