DANNY VAN KOOTEN is a Dutch programmer who has given up eating beef or flying to lessen his carbon emissions. Then, five months ago, he made an even more significant change—and it only took a few keystrokes.
Van Kooten is the creator of a popular WordPress plug-in that makes it easier for website owners to use the Mailchimp mailing-list service. Install van Kooten’s plug-in, and visitors will be able to sign up for your Mailchimp list directly from your website via a form.His plug-in additionally increases the size of the site by several thousand lines of code. A server must deliver a portion of van Kooten’s code to each visitor’s browser every time they visit your page. It takes energy to transport data to a browser; the less code you send, the less energy you spend.
As a result, van Kooten made the decision to trim things down. He “refactored” his plug-in to make it more efficient, resulting in a 20-KB reduction in data sent. The site would consume a little less energy on a daily basis.
Of course, a reduction of 20 KB is minuscule. However, since his plug-in is used by 2 million websites, it adds up. Trimming the code, he estimates, lowered global CO2 emissions by 59,000 kilos per month, nearly comparable to flying from New York to Amsterdam and back 85 times.
For two hours of hacking, it’s not awful. “The coding thing has been by far the biggest thing I could do,” he exclaims, “and it’s crazy because it’s a lot less work than not eating any meat.”
Van Kooten’s aha moment is one that web designers all over the world are experiencing. It’s known as sustainable software design, and it’s driven by technologists who track the energy budget of almost every swipe and click in our information ecosystem.
It’s a ripe hunting ground. Because software is responsible for so much of our life, even minor tweaks can have a big impact. They can even be lovely: A group of students created an Instagram filter this spring that decreases the file size of a photo you upload by 40%.
It gives the image a retro pointillization that looks like a black-and-white newspaper photo from the midcentury. One of the students, Danique de Bies, told me that the goal wasn’t just to save energy, but to create something so appealing that people would “want to use it.”
Our wasting habits can pile up. It would save 16 tons of carbon per year if every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email every day.
Our digital environment is often made more pleasant by recoding it to use less energy. Consider all the ad code that bloats websites—megs and megs of trash. We despise it for spying on us, but it also slows down page loading.
Tim Frick, founder of Mightybytes, a green web consultant, adds, “It’s continually pinging servers; it’s not particularly efficient.” “All of that data adds up to a lot.” According to the designers at Mightybytes, when European Union regulations obliged US corporations to delete some tracking code from their sites for European visitors, USA Today’s homepage shrank by 90% and loaded 15 times faster.
Even our careless behavior can add up to a mountain of carbon. Consider how many “thanks,” “got it,” and “lol” emails we send back and forth on social media. Utilizing data from Lancaster University professor Mike Berners-Lee, who studies carbon footprints, the UK energy firm Ovo discovered that if every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email each day, they would save 16 tons of carbon each year, which is what might be compared to 22 full circle trips between New York and London.
They also discovered that 49% of us frequently write thank-you emails to persons who are “within talking distance.” If we only take off our headphones for a minute and stop acting like a bunch of morons, we can reduce our carbon production.
Granted, there’s an apparent counter-argument to this design trend: why focus on individuals in the first place? Look to major infrastructure to reach truly juicy carbon reduction targets. Video content providers account for 61% of all online activity. (Netflix alone is responsible for 13% of it.)
The annual emissions of Bitcoin are nearly equal to those of Sri Lanka. Consider artificial intelligence. According to study by computer scientist Emma Strubell and her colleagues, training a single AI model can emit up to five times the lifetime CO2 of a car. Those regions require immediate efficiency improvements.
Even if tiny design changes don’t completely eliminate the belching emissions of movies or bitcoin, they’re still worth discussing. It’s excellent to put a spotlight on our daily software’s CO2 footprint since it makes the value of lower-energy code more tangible.
Consider what would happen if websites abandoned their monitoring bloatware in favor of badges touting their improved performance and decreased carbon footprint. Competitors would be envious of you.
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