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Talking Point – Website Carbon Footprints

I recently heard about a website having a carbon footprint message on its home page. It went something like this … “Only 0.17g of CO2 is produced every time someone visits this website's homepage”. 

It got me thinking about why someone would go to the effort of calculating the amount of carbon a website might generate, and then why they’d add it to their website, so I did a spot of investigating. It turns out that there are virtual ‘businesses’ offering to calculate the amount of carbon a website is using up and then offering ways to help reduce it. Sound familiar? It reminds me of all the websites of a few years ago which were offering to audit the speed of a website with a view to make everything work faster. Given that any professional web designer or integrator worth their salt already builds websites with this in mind, it made me think of the emperor’s new clothes, or the salesperson selling ice to eskimos.

So how important is it to know your website’s carbon footprint and how do you go about calculating it?

Seems that the ones guilting you into reducing your website’s carbon footprint use the measurement of data to calculate how much energy your site is using every time someone visits the website.

It’s pretty much just another sustainability gimmick – the amount of carbon used is dependent on the source, efficiency and volume of electricity used to power servers, PCs, monitors etc, so it would be impossible to put an accurate figure on it as no two scenarios are the same. The people pushing the concept (gimmick) use data as their measurement, however an important component they seem to miss is that servers are on and powered constantly – 24/7 – they have to be, so the true measure is in how much energy (electricity) the servers consume and how that energy has been generated.

One saving could be in the number of images and graphics used. Fewer images and graphics used on homepages would mean faster loading, so a slightly reduced amount of power could be used, however that’s not what website owners and website visitors want these days – they all want a connection with people, which means lots of pretty photos and stylish graphics, all of which take time to load.

We went looking for a website that promoted the concept of measuring a website’s carbon footprint and found one that supposedly measures this. Unfortunately, it uses the distance from itself and the number of hops it takes to get to it, so naturally something in the US right next door to the website is going to appear to be better than something further away, so really, their benchmark is flawed from the get go. They really have no idea how much carbon is consumed and would be unable to know without an in-depth knowledge of everything in between your server and theirs. 

The website we found also provide an API which, will of course, add to the carbon footprint every time it’s called.

In reality, New Zealand’s entire carbon output is so small that even if NZ got its output to zero it would make very little difference to global warming. So, we go through all this pain to appease the UN when the major carbon polluters do nothing but talk about the issue.

Until NZ finds a more carbon-friendly method to generate electricity at peak times, instead of using imported coal from Indonesia to power the Huntly power station when we run low on power at 5pm most days because everyone is charging up their electric cars, it’s a moot question really.

We certainly won’t be recommending that anyone adds the carbon footprint measurement to their website as the concept is full of holes and it would actually use up energy unnecessarily to create it in the first place, but hey, it’s a nice idea to spread awareness of the issue, even if it’s just another gimmick.

You might recall that in the early days of the WWW phenomena websites used to have counters on them to show how much traffic their sites received. We put this latest gimmick into the same basket. The good news is that no trees were used in the creation of anything Expert produces. I don’t mean to sound flippant, however we also don’t like seeing gimmicks like this exploit the good work we’re all trying to do in the sustainability space.

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