Tackling the world’s silent polluter – the internet

In this guest post, Donovan Justice, a partner within the digital engineering and emerging tech group at EY, sets out why it is time people started paying attention to the carbon emissions generated by the internet 

When we as a society assign responsibility for carbon emissions, we tend to stick to a predictable set of causes and actors. For instance, people often rank individual nations by how many tons of CO2 they emit or call out big organisations who may need to do more to offset their emissions.

However, people can be less aware of the more subtle sources of pollution. The internet is a good example: it’s actually one of the biggest producers of CO2 on the planet.

Worryingly, the effort organisations and nations are putting in to reduce their respective CO2 outputs isn’t reflected in the digital world, and the demands placed on the online space continue to grow as more people and organisations build a digital presence.

Put simply, the internet is currently the world’s biggest silent polluter, and the problem is only set to grow if we don’t mitigate it now.

Unpacking the problem

The first step in solving the problem is to break it down. Changes over the last two years have served as a catalyst for accelerated digital adoption, and there are no signs of a slowdown as more organisations embark on their business transformation journeys.

From a business perspective, building a digital footprint and digitising services are often non-negotiable. As the world embraces technological change, businesses must adapt while continuing to place people at the heart of their decision-making. Channels like websites and social media have become crucial, and day-to-day practicalities like data storage, along with demand for technologies like quantum – which requires significantly more processing power – is growing.

The most obvious practical routes for businesses to ‘green’ their digital footprint tend to centre around the circular economy and how they manage their hardware. For instance, a business can be more environmentally conscious by recycling old pieces of tech rather than sending them to landfill. Similarly, choosing hardware that does not emit disproportionate amounts of heat is a meaningful step.

However, to truly integrate sustainability, businesses should also be looking deeper into the software side of their digital strategies. A website is a non-negotiable business essential – and websites contribute a surprising amount of CO2 emissions, with the average web page producing around 0.5g of CO2 per page view. When you take into account the typical number of page views the average organisation receives every month, these emissions add up quickly.

There are several approaches to ‘greening’ a website and some are simpler than others. The first step here is for CIOs to work with IT leaders to measure their site to create a benchmark from which they can analyse their progress.

Once the baseline is established, a good next step is to look at the site’s design. For example, whether the site is coded efficiently, built with static pages, and if a content delivery network (CDN) is used to reduce the distance between the data an organisation holds and its users. Having taken those two steps, businesses are already ahead of most other organisations.

Connecting data across the organisation is also a useful action here. CIOs have a big role to play in eliminating siloes so data is easier to access, which in turn preserves energy by reducing data repetition.

The next step for businesses

To scale up sustainably and deliver technology at speed, organisations must make sure they are addressing the environmental impact of their digital strategy to help challenge one of the biggest and most overlooked problems posed by the internet.

As with many ESG issues, it can be difficult to know where to begin. As long as leaders are taking the time to speak with internal teams and consult external organisations, they will be in a strong position to enact change. Leaders can tangibly help deliver long-term value, and build a better, more sustainable working world by beginning to take steps – however small – right now.

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