Will data be the downfall of digital sustainability?


The term “big data” has been around since the mid 1990s, and the ability to collect  increased amounts of user data has turned the world of marketing and advertising on its head. How often have you visited a website for it to “conveniently” present you with the exact product you are looking to buy? Big data drives the world around us, and many of the services we take for granted are dependent on us in our digital form. This is likely to grow exponentially as AI (Artificial intelligence) becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, requiring ever growing amounts of data to keep up with accelerated digital transformation.

User data is however only one part of data as a whole and, although privacy is a primary concern for many, the impact of storing and transmitting this data around the world is becoming more and more important for organisations and individuals alike.

In 2021, a Cambridge University study revealed that Bitcoin may use more electricity annually than the whole of Argentina. This came as a surprise to many in the cryptocurrency world, and began to shine a light on how digital industries impact global sustainability and conscious efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

How does data create carbon emissions?

Data of any kind needs to be stored somewhere and, more often than not, this means a server sitting somewhere that is connected to the internet. For many years, servers were obscure boxes in a dark corner of an office building. With the advent of cloud computing however, data for the most part now sits in a network of data centres that provide cost and convenience without businesses requiring the overhead of managing physical infrastructure. Data centres can however consume huge amounts of electricity to keep hundreds, if not thousands of websites and applications running.

In 2020, when the global pandemic hit, businesses scrambled to move legacy tools, systems, and data into the cloud. This further accelerated the move to cloud computing and the reliance on data centres that provide fast, on-demand services, regardless of location. Whilst during the pandemic, overall global ‘measured’ carbon emissions fell, the significant bounce back in 2022 reflects, not only a return to business as usual, but a change to our lifestyles and way of working that directly impacts the use of data.

What does digital sustainability look like in a post-pandemic world?

If businesses learnt anything during the global pandemic, it was that digital-first is the only way to safeguard from the impact of business disruption on a global scale. This distribution of the workforce, including compute resource and data storage, has however expedited an issue that FTSE100 firms have been quietly working on for decades. ESG, or Environmental, social, and governance is a strategic framework for identifying, assessing, and addressing a company’s carbon footprint and commitment to sustainability, plus areas including workplace culture and commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

ESG is fast becoming one of the key considerations for potential investors, particularly those focused on digital sustainability and minimising a company’s impact on the environment. But does ESG go far enough to consider the true environmental impact of a business’ digital activities?

What does Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) mean for the web?

Although ESG actively looks at the impact a business has on the environment, for the most part, digital sustainability looks solely at the impact of infrastructure and data connected to running the business itself. For example, if a company has 800 employees split across 4 floors of an office building on Melbourne’s South Bank, how much CO2 is emitted by the building, facilities and services, and the infrastructure and data for those employees to complete their job? Whilst measuring and acting upon this data is fundamental to ESG policies, one area of digital sustainability that is often overlooked is web, and the impact a company’s online presence has on their overall CO2 emissions. 

Websites, be they eCommerce, SaaS, or brochureware all have a direct impact on a company’s overall environmental impact. The impact of the internet and the systems supporting them now account for approximately 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions according to some estimates, or 20 times the annual carbon emissions of the state of Victoria. As ESG practices expand beyond ASX listed companies or multi-nationals, more and more businesses will need to consider the environmental impact websites and associated services have on their overall carbon emissions.

How do websites consume data?

Every time you visit a website, a request is made to download files, including the content you read, images, videos, and other documents including 3rd party tracking and analytics scripts that are required to display the website on your device. The more files, or the greater the size of the files, you need to store and download, the more data that needs to be transferred. 

Over the past decade, simple text-based websites have been superseded by content-rich user experiences with video, high-resolution imagery, and animation. All of this visual noise has however come at a cost, with the average web page growing by over 350 percent from approximately 480 kilobytes to over 2 megabytes. If we extrapolate this across hundreds, if not thousands, of website users, you can quickly see how these numbers stack up.

For example, if you visit Mastercard Australia, you need to transfer 11.3 Megabytes of data which will produce 2.57 grams of CO2. You might be thinking this sounds small, but with an average of 2 million monthly users, that’s over 5 tonnes of CO2 emitted per month, just from this one website.

Mastercard Australia Website Carbon Report

So how do we halt the rampant tide of ever-growing websites so that data doesn’t become the downfall of digital sustainability?

If you talk to an ESG specialist, they will likely introduce you to a concept called “Carbon credits”. One carbon credit is equal to one tonne of CO2 or, in some countries, CO2 equivalent gases. Organisations can purchase these “credits” to offset their carbon footprint. 

So in theory you could just buy a bunch of credits and call it a day, but does this really address the issue of growing data?

Whilst activities that actively reduce carbon emissions are admirable, it’s important to look at the root cause of the problem. More data results in more CO2.

How do you reduce website data?

Sustainable web design minimises the amount of data required to display a website to the end user. Less data results in less CO2 emitted. This practice of conscious design and development doubles down on the user experience to ensure the content displayed has a purpose and therefore helps the user answer the question or problem they are looking to solve. By removing unnecessary content, and therefore noise, the overall size of a website is reduced.

For example, MasterCard Australia has a total data surplus of 11.3 Megabytes, 9.5mb of which is from an auto-play video and auto-play audio file at the top of the homepage. Neither of these assets directly contribute to the purpose of the website, instead contribute nearly 85% of the CO2 emitted.

If those two assets alone were removed, the amount of CO2 emitted with 2 million monthly users would be reduced from circa 5 tonnes, to 750kg. Nothing else on the website would need to change. The end user would still get exactly the same information, but 9 tonnes of CO2 would be saved per year.

Will data be the downfall of digital sustainability?

There’s no doubt that data is going to play a key part in how digital industries address the upward trend in CO2 emissions. Where data gives us insight, and enables more connected, personalised digital experiences, it’s our responsibility as digital creators to consider the data being collected, stored, created, and used to ensure we are minimising the environmental impact.

Whilst a reduction in data should be the primary commitment, it is important to recognise that, as a global community, we are slowly moving towards renewable energy. If a website is running on server and network infrastructure powered by renewable energy, then the net emissions will be zero, right? Well, yes but currently only 30% of global electricity is renewable, and we are half a century away from a predominantly renewable world.

Until then, it’s our responsibility to minimise the data required to power our everyday lives, and efficient data management, plus ESG practices should be leading the charge for businesses to reduce their overall carbon footprint.