Sustainability communications, ESG reports and stakeholder communications channels are gaining increased traction within many of our organizations. Yet, how many of us are measuring and mitigating the carbon impact of the content itself?
At the risk of stating the obvious, the world’s information is increasingly digital. We’re relying on digital technologies to educate and inform, using everything from websites and apps to videos and podcasts. As a result, this new and accelerating wave of digital content is increasing the energy demands on an already overextended planet. Energy, for the foreseeable future, generates carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
There are overall assessments of the impact of digital content as an aggregate, estimates that digitization contributes between 2.1% and 3.9% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions. This is similar to the impact of the aviation industry at 2.4%.
Regional studies also provide aggregate data; for example, information and communication technology represents between 25%–33% of the electricity consumption of European households.
Digitization Drives Energy Consumption
Humanity is using more energy than ever before. We have nearly doubled our energy consumption in the past four decades, as we see in Figure 1. As we’re increasing our percentage of renewable energy, our increased overall consumption limits the amount of headway that we’re making on a true green energy transition. Digitization is driving a significant amount of that consumption.
Figure 1 — The world is using more energy than ever before. While renewable energy production is increasing, it’s not keeping pace with our growing demand. Source: Our World in Data.
How Bad Can It Be?
When I talk about the emissions impact of digitization at conferences or with clients, the first response is usually, “How bad could it be? If it was a big deal, I would have heard about this already,” or “That doesn’t apply to us, we use a green data center.” But the data center only tells part of the story.
Let’s say that you have an industry-average four-megabyte (MB) web page. Just like the boxes in your attic, it takes a relatively small amount of energy for it to just sit there. Real energy comes when you have to move it.
Now, let’s say that the web page gets 10 hits. That four MB of data is moved 10 times, using 10 times the energy and generating 10 times the emissions. Of course, we don’t create content to be viewed just 10 times. We want it to be downloaded hundreds, thousands or even millions of times. We can quantify the energy and emissions generated by those downloads to phones, tablets and laptops.
How much energy does data use? In his book, “Sustainable Web Design,” Tom Greenwood suggested a current estimate of less than one kilowatt hour per gigabyte (kWh/GB) of data that accounts for internet protocol (IP) core networks and access networks, plus cables and data centers, as well as the networking equipment and devices in your home or office. This number seems to be the most comprehensive end-to-end assessment and is continuously revised on Greenwood’s website as overall efficiency improves.
Leveraging Our Impact at Work
For decades we’ve heard about our climate or carbon footprint: the impact that our lives and choices have on the Earth’s climate. While climate footprint was a term developed by scientists, it became famous after a BP marketing campaign, that began about 20 years ago, shifted the emphasis to personal responsibility to draw attention away from the fact that BP is one of the top 15 largest polluters in history. It was a remarkably effective campaign that shifted the conversation to placing the weight entirely on the shoulders of the individual.
But individuals are not the largest contributors to climate change, nor can individual action singlehandedly solve the problem. Even if every human implements personal behavioral changes in every area that we can, the IEA notes that dramatic personal change still only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 4% by 2050.
A report published by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) stated that 100 companies are responsible for more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the industrial revolution — 250 years ago. These organizations have been responsible for 71% of all emissions since 1998. If most emissions are driven by corporations, then it makes sense that we have the most opportunity to leverage our impact at work.
Calculating the Impact
I’m going to use a web page as my example because every organization has a website. But any digital content — emails, videos, apps, podcasts — can be measured.
Step 1: Measure the Size
Apps, audio and video are easy to measure; simply look at the file size. If you have questions about your web page, use the calculator at Pingdom.com.
I’ll use The Nature Conservancy as an example. Running the home page through the Pingdom calculator on 5 January 2023 revealed that the site was 4.1 MB.
Figure 2 — Running The Nature Conservancy website through the Pingdom calculator reveals that the site is about average at 4.1 MB, but is slow to download and weighed down by backend scripts.
Step 2: Identify the Source of the Page Weight
Next, look at the Pingdom calculator to identify not only the total weight of the page but the weight of the components of the page. Is it heavy on imagery? Backend tracking? Where is the bloat? For most web pages, page weight comes from imagery. This one is a little different. We can see in Figure 2 that more than half of the page weight comes from backend scripts and tracking.
Step 3: How Many Hits?
Now we have the weight of the page. How many hits does it get each year?
SimilarWeb says that The Nature Conservancy gets more than one million hits per year.
Step 4: Run the Numbers
Calculating the Impact
Multiply size by hits, divide by 1,000
Multiply data by 0.81 kWh/GB
1.6 Metric Tons
Run 3,653 through the EPA calculator
Figure 3 — The home page of The Nature Conservancy website generates 1.6 metric tons of emissions per year, equivalent to driving more than 3,900 miles (6313 km) in a gasoline-powered passenger car, according to the EPA calculator.
This one web page contributes 1.6 metric tons of emissions, as we see in Figure 3.
Why Does It Matter?
We can’t afford to ignore the climate impacts of digitization on our planet. These effects will be felt unevenly at first, but we do know that more dramatic consequences will be experienced by women; those experiencing poverty; and black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). If we know that the most vulnerable among us will be hardest hit, we have an ethical obligation to make a difference where we can.
We Don’t Have To Abandon Digital Content
By measuring the carbon emissions of our digital content, we can balance the value of our content creation against its planetary impact. We can ask ourselves; is this digital format the best resource for the audience as well as the planet?
Sustainable content is plain, straightforward, accessible and usable. It’s clear, concise and compelling: everything that we want our content to be. We don’t need special permission to create it. We just need conscientious content strategy, effective content design and our arsenal of best practices.
By employing the sustainable content calculator, we can measure the direct impact of our digital content. All content creators should keep these numbers in mind when balancing audience needs with the most climate friendly methodologies for presentation.
Alisa clarifies complex ideas, developing sustainable content strategies for a global clientele. Her experience spans several industries over more than two decades, with a particular focus on making the world a better place through sustainability communications aligned with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She is an Associate Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, a Certified Master Gardener, a crochet enthusiast and frequently speaks at conferences and workshops.