Green Internet use

John R Hudson explains some of the environmental impacts of using the Internet, and what you can do to reduce them

John R Hudson

Think air travel is the single largest source of carbon emissions? Wrong! Internet servers overtook air travel in 2014, mainly because of the smartphone revolution. In the past five years, the number of smartphones, all able, and in most cases needing, to connect to an Internet server, has overtaken the number of Windows computers, and, while smartphone sales continue to rise, sales of traditional computers are in decline.

Computer companies have long been aware of their impact on the environment and have taken steps to make their products more eco-friendly, but the servers that connect the Internet have received less attention until recently, when ideas like moving to ARM chips (which use reduced instruction set computing, or RISC, requiring lower power), using renewables to power and cool servers, putting servers in places like Iceland where both geothermal energy to run them and the water to cool them are naturally available, or putting them in housing developments where their heat can be used to heat people's homes, have been explored.

However, most servers are not operated by energy-conscious organisations, and the speed at which Internet use is increasing will outpace the efforts of the IT industry to reduce their carbon footprint unless users moderate their demands on the Internet.

So what can environmentally-conscious Internet users do?

Smartphone users, even if they are unaware of it, will be using IMAP to read their emails. IMAP puts a lesser load on servers than the traditional POP method in which emails are downloaded rather than just read on the server. But this means that users expect continuous access to a server.

Sending plain text emails reduces the load on servers; sending images increases the load a lot, unless they are compressed or vector graphics images, which allow very small files even for very complex images.

For sending email attachments, the Microsoft Office .docx format offers compression but, if you use bitmap images in it, there is a limit to how far it can compress them. Unfortunately, vector graphics images are poorly supported in Microsoft Office and, for this, the LibreOffice .odt format is a better option.

If you use CiviMail and never look at the results of tracking, turn tracking off and you will save energy.

Using Google, Facebook and Twitter, which depend on serving up adverts to you for income and which therefore seek to entice you to use them as your chief medium for communicating, puts a drain on servers because the same considerations apply to uploading images to social media as to emailing them; so upload a selection of your holiday snaps so that all your friends don't have to go through them all, increasing the strain on the servers.

If static images are a drain, moving images are a much greater drain; however, media companies are keen on using streaming, whether for TV, films or video games, because they can control access to their products more easily as well as learning more about you in order to sell you more products.

If you are involved in web design, you can reduce the load on servers by using the latest version of HTML and CSS and keeping Javascript to an absolute minimum. In 2015, Google announced that, because mobile devices now account for over half the requests to its servers, it would prioritise sites that meet these criteria, among others, in its search results.

Of course, we all like the Internet because it allows us to do things much more easily and to do things that we could never have done before. It has enabled responses to disasters to be coordinated more effectively and people living under repressive regimes to communicate with others in ways that they could not have done before. But it is not an environmentally cost-free option, so please be conscious of how you use it.