The Carbon Footprint of the Internet and Ideas on Easily Reducing Your Impact

October 25, 2019

Bath Digital festival

This was by far the most challenging talk I have ever done, as the topic and research required really took me out of my comfort zone. Still the effort was worth it. You can always tell if a talk has resonated with an audience by the questions you get and how many people chat with you at the end. In this case there were loads of questions, some documented below and I think about seven different people spoke to me at the end about various aspects of the talk.

Also sharing the slides on social media has been interesting. On Twitter it generated a lot of shared and comments, and the same with LinkedIn.

My success criteria were to keep the session positive, not to overrun and also to encourage just one person to think about their carbon emissions from using the internet. I succeeded on all accounts, so happy days.


Audience questions

Here’s a selection of some of the questions asked by the audience at the end. There were a lot of other questions too, but these were the ones that really stood out as interesting to me – mainly as I couldn’t answer them! So some food for thought on what to research and talk about next.


Q.  Is there any research into the carbon emissions of different tech stacks?

A. I haven’t come across anything specific. Though I have seen a lot that suggests Javascript heavy sites will cause your device to use more power, and are often associated with increased page weights. It would be an interesting experiment to try and get some answers to this though, but seriously tricky because of the variations on how that tech stack actually gets used. But I suppose you coud just assess a vanilla install and see what you find out.


Q. Can you explain carbon offsetting?

A. Actually I could and did. In simple terms, if person A is creating X carbon emissions in one place, they may choose to offset that carbon by paying person B to not release the same amount of carbon elsewhere. Thereby ‘offsetting’ what they emitted in the first place. Or better yet person B may actually do something that takes X amount of carbon out the atmosphere, like planting trees. It’s a complex topic with lots of people bending activities to look good, rather than actually having an real impact. My simplified opinion is try your best to not emit in the first place, and if you think the emission is unavoidable plant trees.


Q. Are there any books you would recommend on this subject?

A. On carbon emissions of the internet specifically? Nope, none that I am aware of. There is this book Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg. It does talk about the internet, but many other topics too. However, Wholegrain Digital has just started their ‘Curiously green’ newsletter that promises to be really interesting.


Q. Do you know how the carbon emissions of sending emails vs downloading pdfs compares?

A. Off the top of my head I wasn’t able to answer that. I think the question was getting at general activities in the office and if there is a better way to communicate certain types of info. I thought this question was a good one, and I will try and find an answewr. I did mention that I had some seen some research that suggested good old fashioned paper was now more green that saving the same info digitially. But I was clear that that was only one paper, and that in order to be confident about that it would take a bit more research.


Anyway, I am now really excited about the next version of this talk I will be giving at Internet Dagarna at the end of November. The next version will be aimed squarely at techy WordPress people, rather than this version which I specifically made general to appeal to the diverse audience which attends Bath Digital festival.


Feedback from the audience