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Can we create a greener web?

greenopen socialsustainability
12 May, 2022
Open Social Team
Open Social Team
Open Social

Why organizations should be looking for sustainable tech solutions

Climate change: it’s one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Yet, while the focus is often on power plant pollution, single-use plastics, deforestation, and fossil fuels, web technologies remain among the biggest, least-visible carbon culprits.

Inversely, though, it means that web technologies can be part of the solution. While web hosting companies like Platform.sh offer greener hosting services, organizations like the Foraus Think Tank and Greenpeace International are using community platforms like ours at Open Social to tackle critical questions around sustainable technology solutions.

How sustainable is the web?

Data transferability

Many believe the web exists as a purely virtual world, but the internet is much more than what pops up on browsers. All Wi-Fi networks represent outlets for thousands of kilometers of transcontinental cables. The cloud is composed of blinking servers eating up electricity worldwide. Each time someone refreshes a website, machines must retrieve information from these centers via transcontinental cables.

Recent research published in Nature journal states that “Datacenters contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions.” In contrast, the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem has a carbon footprint of ~4% of carbon emissions globally, .5% more than the aviation industry’s fuel emissions.

Luca Tiralongo, product and community manager at Greenpeace International, contextualizes how this is everyone's problem.

We use technology from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep—and sometimes even while we sleep! But unfortunately, we don’t realize the impact of all this: how many of us know that an hour of Netflix has a huge carbon footprint?

Luca Tiralongo
Product and Community Manager, Greenpeace International

Tiralongo explains that while we can see single-use plastics cluttering beaches—or the fumes from car exhausts float into foggy cities—we don’t perceive the material impact the transference of electronic data has on the world. “It’s something that’s not technically tangible, but it’s there, and it's huge,” he adds.

Data processing

Every website has a carbon footprint directly related to how much data needs to be electronically stored, processed, and transferred each time a visit is loaded. But it’s not just data transference that moves the needle. Ads. Trackers. Poorly designed/developed applications that consume device batteries and electricity. Cryptocurrency. Machine learning. AI technologies. The massive computational power needed to run complex speech recognition, data processing, or content recommendation algorithms add up to an exceptional cost in energy consumption.

Right now, the web isn’t environmentally sustainable. But that doesn’t mean it has to remain that way.

How to make the web more sustainable

Greener hosting

One of the most effective ways to reduce a website’s carbon footprint is to switch to a greener web host. At Greenpeace International, Tiralongo oversees globally endorsed engagement technologies, including Greenwire—an online community platform created by Open Social. Greenpeace chose Open Social because we have access to greener hosting through our partner Platform.sh, enabling us to fulfill one of Greenpeace’s critical website/web platform requirements. “There is no negotiation,” Tiralongo explains. “Either our vendors prove their web servers run on services powered by green energy or it's a no-go.”

Recently, Platform.sh completed an audit with Greenly to determine steps that will significantly improve carbon emissions for the company and its clients (including Open Social) as we collectively move toward net zero. Here’s some of what Platform.sh confirmed:

  • The infrastructure efficiency of the Platform.sh dedicated, triply redesigned hosting offer reduces its carbon footprint by 5x.
  • By relocating apps to greener regions, their carbon footprint is reduced by up to 10x.
  • Optimizing code performance decreases consumption of underlying resources, reducing their carbon footprint by up to 20x.

The Greenly report offers a more detailed view of the Platform.sh green approach, CSR initiatives, carbon footprint, and strategic plan to further reduce emissions.

But according to Tiralongo, it’s not solely the responsibility of technology providers to offer sustainable solutions, but also for organizations of any industry to make greener hosting a supplier prerequisite. By taking this approach, organizations can actively drive change in the tech industry, so greener hosting becomes a much more mainstream option.

“Greenpeace advocates for clean technology,” says Tiralongo. “Adopting it is a tangible way to prove it's feasible. Everyone can do good things just by using green technologies.”

Technology giants like Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft continue their efforts to increase energy efficiency and reduce their carbon footprints. For Tiralongo, everyone with a considerable technology setup should feel responsible for their carbon offset. “I understand that people have existing business models and stakeholders to satisfy,” he says. “But if you ask me, the transition is inevitable.” Tiralongo is equally pragmatic about the adoption of greener hosting. “A company with good leadership, good management, and good values that wants to transition to clean energy and green hosting has to be conscious that it takes time, investment, and people to make it happen.”

Despite the initial investment, Tiralongo believes the effort pays well in the long run, adding additional value to an organization’s product, services, and clients.

Sustainable technologies, greener policies

When they launched their online community with Open Social in 2018, Swiss-based, grassroots think tank Foraus was looking for an innovative platform that would fit their then-current, participatory policy-making methodology and enable a diverse network of thinkers to debate and contribute to foreign policy questions in a more expansive online forum.

Today, Eduardo Belinchon—Foraus’s Digital Innovation Manager—manages their Open Social online community Policy Kitchen to do just that, creating policy challenges and crowdsourcing ideas that can be translated into policy proposals. “We also focus on global governance,” explains Belinchon. “We have the United Nations (UN) sitting here in Geneva, and we have a good connection to UN decision-makers, which means we can bring those bottom-up ideas to the global debate arena.”

While Foraus doesn’t build sustainable technologies, they drive the conversation—both in public, and in policy and governance. Part of what makes the work of Foraus and Policy Kitchen so important is that through the use of their Open Social online community, they also advocate for sustainable tech solutions.

Take the example of web applications. They’re complex technology stacks that include databases. Backend systems. AI algorithms. Even specialized hardware used to complete complex calculations. Whether using mobile banking or online investment services, these web apps need to perform real-time data analysis, encryption, cybersecurity, access transaction histories, process payments, interact with banking infrastructures and systems, and much more. This is why Foraus was commissioned to conduct one of their crowdsourcing research projects on the topic of sustainable Fintech (funded by the Sunflower Foundation), running a challenge that looked at global governance models.

The challenge posed questions like:

  • What’s the environmental impact of technology used in the financial sector?
  • How can the sector improve sustainability?
  • How can we create mechanisms for this?
  • How do Fintech companies operate?
  • Do we take their operating model into account when making sustainability recommendations?

The policy challenge consisted of a series of virtual workshops that gave experts, stakeholders, and other interested parties an opportunity to explore the role technology can play in addressing climate-change issues. “By bringing people together, we were able to elaborate more on the topic and different aspects and angles, and introduce other narratives into the debate,” explains Belinchon. Over time, Foraus has continued to leverage Policy Kitchen to promote sustainable technology solutions and policy using web-based technologies.

Partial screenshot from Policy Kitchen showing a challenge entitled 'FinTechs & Sustainability: Envisioning Sustainable FinTech Bridges'

Screenshot from Policy Kitchen showing an extended description and signup details for the Sustainable Fintech Bridges workshop series

The road toward a greener web

Responsibility falls on all of us to adopt sustainable tech solutions that propel us toward a greener web. Open Social gives our clients the option for greener hosting through our partnership with Platform.sh.

Online resources and communities like climateaction.tech are available to help organizations embrace the change and move closer to a sustainable web. Still, strong will and consistent commitment are the essential prerequisites to making a greener web a reality.

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