Three Ways to Assess Your Website’s Carbon Footprint

Your site’s carbon footprint is larger than you think. Here’s what IT leaders need to know about digital sustainability.

Digital utility doesn’t automatically equal digital sustainability. Frictionless web experiences that provide for seamless online shopping or web browsing make it easy to overlook environmental costs at scale. Especially when frictionless user experience is a top goal of cloud systems and applications. 

Responsible operation of the internet is critical to reducing our long-term environmental impact. This is largely owing to the electricity used by data centers, transmission and end users. Many parties are aware of the ongoing damage and want to do better to reconcile the virtual experience with the real costs of building and managing the web.

Investors have become increasingly interested in environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, which include the impact of an organization’s web presence. Employees — especially younger generations — also prefer organizations that prioritize environmental sustainability as a part of their business. Perhaps most importantly, consumers are demanding sustainable products and services from companies. 

Let’s take a closer look at how green your website is and what you can do to improve digital sustainability.

1. Where is your website hosted?

When looking at your website’s digital footprint, data centers are the most obvious consumers of energy. They require a lot of electricity to operate and almost as much just to keep the equipment cool. And servers must run 24/7/365.

While data centers have become more efficient over the last decade, the improvements have not been able to keep up with the acceleration in internet usage. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that data centers used 200-250 TWh of electricity in 2020 — around 1 percent of electricity demand across the globe, roughly the same percentage since 2010 — and that the demand for data service is rising “exponentially.” 

Traditionally, IT teams had to do some careful capacity planning and buy equipment every three years or so. That meant a lot of room for error in anticipating a company website’s traffic growth — resulting in either wasted resources (for overestimating) or wasted potential (for underestimating).

Today, however, cloud infrastructure makes it much easier for companies to buy only the capacity they need at the moment with the ability to scale up or down quickly and efficiently to meet demand. 

Beginning with the virtual machine (VM), hosting providers have been able to move more users to a single piece of hardware, move workloads around to separate hardware and share more workloads. The next level – containerization, can operate at 1000 times the efficiency of a traditional VM. And now, the culmination of this technology is a serverless infrastructure offered by providers like Pantheon on Google Cloud.

While cloud migration has the potential to significantly lower your website’s emissions, not all cloud platforms are equal in that category. That’s one of the many reasons why Pantheon chose Google Cloud — an industry innovator in digital sustainability. Google Cloud has been carbon neutral since 2007 and has committed to becoming carbon-free by 2030.

2. How is your website’s data transmitted across networks?

While data center energy consumption may be more visible, the IEA also notes that data transmission networks used 260-350 TWh in 2020 — 1.1-1.4 percent of electricity use worldwide. That means greening your website’s digital footprint could include reducing redundant processes and data transmission.

You can improve data transmission across networks to make your website more eco-friendly by using these five tools:

  • Static sites: Because dynamic sites must fetch and send the full code bundle — whether or not all of it is required — each time a user visits a page, they depend on more CPU cycles than a static site, which translates into more emissions. Static sites, however, don’t need to dynamically generate pages because they’re comprised of flat HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. 

  • Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP): AMP provides a stripped-down version of an original web page by removing unnecessary code and reducing file weight. Although initially developed to optimize sites for mobile devices, AMP can work on any type of device. You should note, though, that AMP adds the most value when converting heavy pages and is least effective for sites that are already lean and efficient.

  • Progressive Web Applications (PWA): Like AMP, PWA helps reduce page load time and improve access across devices, which makes your site more sustainable. But unlike AMPs, PWAs are not meant to be more efficient versions of your original site. Rather, PWAs make it possible to use your website as if it were a native app, providing a similar experience at a smaller size.

  • Server/Client-Side Caching: Client-side caching is one of the ways PWAs can make your site’s data transmission more efficient by storing it on the end user’s device. Consider also that properly configuring caching headers for images, JavaScript, CSS and media files will allow for browser caching. For static sites, server-side caching is also an energy-reducing option with excellent UX.

  • Content Delivery Networks (CDNs): CDNs serve website assets from networks of data centers, ideally enabling end users to access them from a location nearer to them. By reducing the distance required for transmitting this data, your site can improve load times and energy efficiency. Many CDNs can also improve site performance by automating image compression and zipping resources. Keep in mind, though, that spreading out CDNs too far across the globe could cancel out potential energy savings.

  • GCDN: Pantheon greatly reduces the distance between a user and the data center serving them website assets via a Global Content Delivery Network (GCDN). By reducing the distance required for transmitting this data, your site can improve load times and you become more energy efficient by not having to increase your infrastructure to achieve the same user experience.

3. How is your website designed?

We’ve touched on the relationship between good system design and digital sustainability but it’s important to emphasize how seemingly small website design changes can scale into large energy gains.

Evaluating site imagery is the best place to start for maximizing the eco-value of design updates. Images can account for up to 65 percent of a page’s weight on average. First, your content creators should evaluate whether an image adds value to the end user. Consider whether a vector graphic might work as an alternative. If the image is worth its potential weight, compress it.

Although videos are less common on the average web page, their weight per page is heavier. As with images, consider whether the video is necessary and if possible, keep it short. It can also improve performance to disable autoplay features because videos are so data- and processing-intensive. 

Custom web fonts can also use energy as if they were images. Use system fonts as much as possible, which can also improve UX.

Speaking of design, many UX best practices are also excellent strategies for making your site greener. Making content easier to find and easier to consume will reduce the amount of time users spend unnecessarily loading pages and requesting data. Designing for dark mode can also save energy as well as ease the strain on users' eyes.

Pantheon on Google Cloud for a Greener Website

Finding a company that employs renewable energy goes a long way to minimizing the environmental impact of your website. 

Pantheon combines high-performance hosting with website portfolio management and access to best-in-class infrastructure and tools through a partnership with Google Cloud. Google Cloud matches 100 percent of its energy consumed with renewable energy and aims to run on 24/7 carbon-free energy by the end of the decade. By using a managed WordPress and Drupal WebOps platform paired with Google Cloud, you’ll be that much closer to creating a green and sustainable website.


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Topics Development, Website Technology