Canada’s wildfires, amplified by an expanding climate crisis, do not exactly bring to mind the growth of digital frontiers. If we do make the connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the wildfire smoke in our cities and towns, the first things we probably picture are gas stations, oilrigs and coal mines — not server farms.
Yet, the internet is powered by massive arrays of servers in highly air-conditioned data centres, consuming a mix of renewable and non-renewable energy resources, which in turn, impact our warming climate. As the internet and cloud computing quickly surpass the carbon footprint of the airline industry, it should feature more prominently in our climate conversations and priorities.
The internet is growing ever more complex, and in a bid to keep up, large web platforms, marketing agencies and communications professionals are employing ever-more complex tools to win the hearts and minds of audiences. Data-heavy graphics and extravagant videos on websites and social media compete for quality and reach with users.
The average website’s load time increases every year, making pages load more slowly and creating inaccessible experiences for folks. Virtual reality may one day offer us a unique world overlaid on the real one with a potential cost of more fossil fuel combustion to power it. New content and new digital currencies come with a cost that is both social and environmental.
In the physical world, the belief that we can have an exponentially growing market economy does harm to our natural world. In the digital world, we are also living with the mistaken belief that exponential growth is sustainable. Surprisingly or not, the digital world is not “in the cloud” but has a physical, yet hidden, infrastructure. The drive for more eye-catching and more compelling content (see TikTok’s endless video loops) may be taking its own toll on our environment.
Yet, like unlimited urban growth, the notion of exponential digital growth does not need to determine how we go about building new spaces. We can use shorter videos and smaller images on a website to be effective. We can use less code and complexity to create meaningful experiences for visually abled users.
Large data centres are increasingly using renewable energy to power their facilities — and we can host our websites and applications on those servers. And we can use time-tested design principles to thoughtfully create helpful and joyful web experiences for people.
Websites and applications that use less energy are lighter and faster, especially on mobile phones and tablets. They are typically easier for search engines to scour because the content is better exposed. And lightweight sites are often easier to access by those with disabilities, who make up 22 people of the Canadian population.
For those in rural areas where connectivity and bandwidth are a challenge, lightweight websites load faster. Even in big cities, energy-efficient sites are speedier on subways, streets and sandwich shops. By intentionally creating streamlined and energy-efficient websites, we can provide a larger degree of digital climate justice and also serve more users more readily. We might also mention that reducing the load times of larger sites can impact hosting costs for an organization because there is less data to house and serve.
A website or application built for less energy consumption benefits people, the planet and profit.
In other words, a website or application built for less energy consumption benefits people, the planet and profit.
This was the philosophy and approach behind Sierra Club Canada’s recent website redesign, working with Mangrove Web, a website agency that focuses on green web design and building accessible websites. As we work to spread the word about climate change, we can embody that work in the way we build the digital platforms we use to communicate. Yes, there is a certain conflict between lighter-weight design and a world demanding more video, more audio and more robust content. Yet, environmentally conscious and accessible websites for governments, organizations and businesses lead to better user experiences by focusing on the content people actually need and want.
An important part of building a more sustainable planet is creating a more sustainable web. We are hoping this approach will inform the work of other environmentally concerned organizations as our digital ecosystem continues to evolve and as we continue to address the climate crisis.
Conor Curtis, a social and environmental researcher and writer from Corner Brook, N.L., is head of communications at the Sierra Club Canada Foundation. Curtis has written on topics ranging from international politics and global inequality to hydraulic fracturing and climate change, and worked and has volunteered in activities like managing community services at a food bank and organizing refugee settlement support.
Andrew Boardman is creative director at Mangrove Web, a design and development agency and a Certified B Corporation focused on creating a more equitable and sustainable web. Previously, he was principal at Manoverboard, a design studio and the first B Corp in Manitoba. Boardman teaches design at the University of Manitoba. His research interests include web accessibility, typography and independent publishing.