Does the web have a carbon footprint problem?

Singapore-based start-up Greenie Web wants to make websites more eco-friendly

Greenie Web hopes to lower the carbon footprint of the internet
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The internet is often viewed through the lens of making the world a smaller, more accessible place which has lessened the need to get in a car or take a plane, but make no mistake, even the internet has a carbon footprint.

With a seemingly endless need for data centres, servers, and even cryptocurrency mining facilities, various estimates indicate that internet use accounts for between 2 per cent and 4 per cent of overall carbon dioxide emissions, on par with those from the aviation industry.

Those internet emissions inspired Greenie Web, a Singapore-based start-up seeking to make existing websites and website code more environmentally friendly.

“Coding was never sustainable,” said Greenie Web’s 26-year-old founder Ian Chew. “The way it has been taught for past generations has never focused on sustainability … so how can we right the wrong of the past?”

Mr Chew, who started Greenie Web as a side-project when he was in high school, said the start-up mainly focuses on digital decarbonisation, which includes image compression, video frame rates and back end coding, as well as long-term digital sustainability planning.

“There are so many countries going digital and going online for the first time in the next decade, so how can we make sure that experience is sustainable.”

Although Mr Chew declined to name specific clients, he said Greenie Web has attracted interest from the finance and maritime sectors for their websites and other technology infrastructure.

“These companies, the maritime companies, they know things like sustainable fuel are 10 years down the road, but this [reducing digital footprints] is something that can be done right now,” he said.

Greenie Web is not alone in this endeavour. There are multiple companies that estimate the carbon footprint of sites and offer solutions, but Mr Chew said Greenie Web is bolstered by a major difference.

“Nobody has actually gone to the extent that we do in terms of taking people's code and changing it, and that's because it's a very difficult task,” he said, describing Greenie Web's code as low-carbon code.

“Think of it like a storybook, there are many ways of telling the story, but we find the most low-carbon way of telling the story,” he said. “We've created this system over several years to think critically about this issue.”

Some solutions on the road to digital decarbonisation, Mr Chew said, are more obvious, pointing to websites that push the user to watch 4k videos when their devices might not be able to process them.

“There's a lot of wastage in data transmission,” he said.

According to Wholegrain Digital, a firm which also specialises in digital sustainability, the internet consumes 416.2 billion terawatt hours of electricity per year overall. That’s slightly more than the annual electricity consumption of the UK, but less than France, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration.

Some websites, including the UAE’s Cop28 website, have the option to switch to low carbon which eliminates photos and other superfluous features, thus limiting the energy consumed by the website and speeding up the load times. However, there isn’t yet a global standard in web design or coding that would simplify the process for entities hoping to lower their carbon footprint online.

It remains to be seen if such a standard will ever be established, but Mr Chew still sees a market regardless, and said Greenie Web plans to be around for the long haul.

“The angel [investors] really believe in us and for the foreseeable future we're in a very lean situation,” he said, referring to the company's staff levels.

“We're not looking to raise [capital] anytime soon but we're open to strategic opportunities when they come.”

Mr Chew said, unlike technologies such as carbon capture, the idea behind digital sustainability is relatively young and therefore has potential for growth.

There's also what he refers to as the legacy technology infrastructure, which he said is ripe for a sustainable overhaul.

“It wraps around half the world if not more,” he said, referring to existing technology infrastructure that can't be replaced overnight, but can potentially be tweaked.

“How can we improve it in a way that minimises disruption but still allows for better efficiencies and lower carbon emissions?”

Updated: November 22, 2023, 3:59 AM