Sustainability. Technological sustainability.

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To begin with, I’d like to describe you my vision of what sustainability is. It could be defined as an ability or capacity of something to be maintained or to sustain itself. It’s about taking what we need to live now, without jeopardising the potential for people in the future to meet their needs. If an activity is said to be sustainable, it should be able to continue forever. But of course, this definition is quite general. And you should always define more details looking into every particular case. To achieve this, we may define main pathways to sustainability. They are: Social, Technological and Economical and Philosophical Pathways to Sustainability. One can define others also, or group them differently, but for me this division seems the best one.



In this article I’m going to talk about technologically sustainable web.

At the firs glance, it may sound strange that Internet has something to do with the sustainability. But it really does. Nowadays, a growing number of industries are trying to reduce or at least curtail carbon footprints and energy use. Emissions standards have been set for most of them. Yet the internet’s carbon footprint is growing out of control: a whopping 830 million tons of CO2 annually, which is bigger than that of the entire aviation industry. And it keeps growing.

About 40% of that amount is dependent on Web Developers. Mostly, because of features like rotating carousels, high-res images, and more, we have been designing increasingly energy-demanding websites for years, creating monstrous HUMVEE sites.

The good news are that we have several methods for improving the situation. To make it easier, you can always start by evaluating your website with automatic tool, EcoGrader, for example. Its rating is based on website speed, performance, fundability and green hosting usage.

Though it is quite hard to calculate website’s carbon footprint, here is rough overview of possible way to do that:

  • A 2008 paper from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests it takes 13kWh to transmit 1GB.
  • According to EPA figures, the average U.S. power plant emits 1.2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (called CO2e) per kWh produced (other countries have higher or lower averages depending on their energy policy).
  • If we multiply 13kWh by 1.2 pounds, we get 15.6 pounds of CO2e—and that’s just to transfer 1GB of data.
  • Typical page now averages 2.21 Mb (It was 1.29 Mb just 3 years ago).
  • At 15.6 pounds per gigabyte, that’s more than 10 tons of CO2e.
  • Mobile data, with its reliance on 3G/4G, is up to five times more polluting—77 pounds CO2 per gigabyte.
  • If a million mobile users on 3G download a 1.4MB page, that’s 1,367GB times 77 pounds, which totals 52 tons of CO2.

Of course, last year situation changed greatly. Now connection is a way faster. But with getting more fast internet, we keep inventing features which require more and more speed / place / productivity.  And we shouldn’t forget about important factors like how much of the data center’s electricity comes from renewable or fossil fuels or end-user electricity usage. That is where ‘green hosting‘ comes from. Many of them are powered by renewable energy—particularly in Iceland, where data centers have opened to take advantage of cheap geothermal power. Green hosting might not be for everyone yet (it can be more expensive, and Iceland might be far from your customers), but more local green hosts are starting to appear. Some cloud-based services are getting greener, too: Google, Apple, and Rackspace get some of their power from renewables.

So what can every Web Developer do? I’d define three main aspects:

1. Make your web application efficient.

Start with using less big images and scripts.  The lighter the page, the faster it will load. Optimist your content and code. For a quick testing, use Google Page Speed at your site, and it will identify which techniques could be applied to help speed it up.

Use dark colours. It is estimated that if Google were a black page, rather than white, it would save 750 Megawatt hours of energy a year.  There is interesting initiative around this, the black alternative to Google, Blackle. It shows that it has so far saved 5,313,697.703 Watt hours (compared to Google).

This will help you not only to make your site more sustainable, but also to follow up with modern trends to 2015 year, as more and more of them are following the same guidelines, as sustainable websites do.

Make your web application easy to find, use annotation, tags, proper SEO. Nowadays is a must to have optimized versions for all types of devices, which is not only increasing speed of your page load, but is also improving UI / UX of it.

2. Designing for good. 

This thesis makes nice connection to social and philosophical pathways.  It is of the same importance to create websites that are sustainable in their end goal – that promote good causes. This is where connection to my Thesis is the most clear. Yet I’m going to develop my game with best coding practices and make it optimized for different devices, the main purpose of it is a good one.

I’ll speak more on it in my next article, where I’m going to cover social and philosophical aspects.