We’ve recently become much more aware of the negative impact our website and social media activities have on the planet. We asked Natalie Whittle from Glasgow-based climate tech startup, Neuto, to give us some more information about digital carbon emissions and why it’s so important that we reduce them.
To use the internet, you need a lot more power than you might realise. Information does not appear online by magic: it is requested from a data centre or local server and transmitted through cable networks to reach your device. Phones and computers themselves need energy to display information, and they’ll be especially energy hungry if they are asked to render a video or high-resolution image.
This is bad news for climate change, because only a tiny fraction of the internet’s infrastructure uses renewable energy. As a result, almost everything that powers our connected world also pours carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
This simple fact is often overlooked. When was the last time you heard someone talk about a website’s carbon emissions? Meanwhile, the arts and creative industries are often encouraged to digitise their outputs, but this kind of web-based project rarely includes digital carbon emissions among its considerations for environmental impact.
In general, there is a lack of awareness about digital carbon emissions, not just in the arts but across society as a whole. As it stands, the internet burns so much energy it is equivalent to the aviation industry, in terms of carbon dioxide emitted. The mass adoption of smartphones has accelerated the rise of digital consumption, and the overall energy-burn of the internet is forecast to increase steeply by 2030. We are evermore reliant on the digital world, without understanding its carbon toll.
What can we do about the problem?
Neuto is a climate tech startup based in Glasgow, founded by Alex McCartney-Moore, developer, and Christiano Mere, designer. It was created during COP26 in Glasgow with the express purpose of tackling and reducing carbon emissions from digital activities.
At first the founders worked with Not 1 More to create an efficient, time-saving email campaign to be sent to politicians in Cambodia, Guinea-Bissau, Brazil and the UK. After the COP26 conference, Alex and Christiano began to think more deeply about the energy implications of the internet: would it be possible to work out how much carbon dioxide it burns? What change could they bring about if more people knew the precise carbon footprint of their digital activity? They decided not to take shortcuts in answering these questions.
65+ data points
Neuto uses more than 65 data points to analyse the full breadth of the internet’s energy chain, including the energy that your phone, computer or other device uses to present online information. In developing their tools, it was important to Alex and Christiano to use this comprehensive methodology, rather than look solely at isolated parts of the energy equation.
The result is a highly advanced piece of software, Neuto Carbon Monitor, which can measure the carbon emissions of any web page, showing you how much carbon dioxide it produces, where its server is located and what kind of energy it uses, and also indicating the scale of improvement possible. For websites or organisations with large web systems that wish to analyse the entirety of their digital carbon emissions, Neuto offers a bespoke service that is tailored to individual needs.
To give a quick example of how different organisations perform, let’s take a look at some of the most famous museums in the world. As measured by Neuto’s Web Browser Plugin(an instant snapshot of emissions while you browse) on Monday 10 July 2023, the carbon emissions per page load were as follows for the official homepages of:
- Museum of Modern Art, New York: 0.99gCO2e
- The Louvre, Paris: 1.11gCO2e
- Rijks Museum, Amsterdam: 1.56gCO2e
- Museo del Prado, Madrid: 1.66gCO2e
- National Gallery, London: 1.99gCO2e
Unsurprisingly for museums with vast collections of visual art, their websites use high-resolution images to show off their greatest attractions to their best advantage. This is relevant for carbon emissions, since imagery and video files are often the biggest culprits when it comes to slowing down the page-load time of a website.
When you think about the number of users a popular website might attract, 1.99gCO2e can quickly add up to kilograms and tonnes of carbon. To put this in perspective, if 100,000 people visited a website with 1gCO2e per page load, it would be equivalent to the energy required to charge 12,164 smartphones, and would require almost 2 trees to grow for 10 years in order to sequester the associated carbon emissions.
Part of the work done by Neuto’s software is to pinpoint the assets on a website that are ‘heaviest’, or producing the most carbon dioxide emissions, because they require more energy to be transmitted to a device through the network.
We’re keen to support organisations in the arts and culture sector to understand and reduce their digital emissions, and we have some simple tools to help. Sign-up to Neuto’s software is free; we encourage you to have a look around our website and check out your own organisation’s digital emissions.
Here are some tips for lowering your carbon emissions when working and browsing online:
- Laptops are more efficient than desktop computers. As a general rule, even when plugged in, laptops use less energy than desktops.
- Avoid wifi, if possible. Plugging your computer into a wired connection uses less energy. The network effort for wireless connectivity is much greater.
- Check the off switch: this is an old one, but it’s worth repeating. Turn off devices at the wall and don’t leave them in sleep mode.
- If you’re publishing images online, consider using compression to make them ‘lighter’ assets.
- Be aware of your server’s energy source – and switch (if possible) to a renewable-powered alternative. You can check your server’s info at the Green Web Foundation website.
We have lots of other tips in our Knowledge Guide.
Remember, browsing the web burns energy!
[Editor’s note: Enormous thanks to Natalie for these insights. We encourage everyone to reduce their digital carbon emissions wherever they can including using Neuto’s terrific carbon monitor and other resources.
Cleaning up our website is a priority for Creative Carbon Scotland. It’s been hosted by a server run on renewable energy for a while now, but there’s more work to be done, especially because the site is so content rich. At the moment, we’re busy compressing images, reducing the number of pages and deleting past events and outdated posts. In the longer term, we’re planning to redevelop the site altogether.]
The post Guest blog: Cleaning up your digital carbon footprint – with Neuto appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.
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