Last year I was lucky enough to go to a workshop with Chris Adams (@mrchrisadams) & René Post from the Green Web Foundation. The workshop focused on how we can measure the environmental impact of the web. 

We learnt many interesting things and I planned a single blogpost on this, however all that has really happened is that I have an ever increasing number of questions. I plan to write more on this, but for now I want to ramble a bit about the carbon cost of cloud in the public sector.

With all the government clients I have worked with ‘cloud first’ is always followed (or at least aspired to) and frequently talked about.  The Service Manual section ‘Deciding how to host your service’ is a good starting point. Guidance that gets you to consider sensible things like, can it do what you need and what are the costs? The final piece of wisdom is:

‘When looking for a supplier, you should try to find options that offer value for money and avoid long contracts with a single company.’

All of this is good, but nowhere is environmental impact mentioned. With the guidance on how to create and implement a cloud hosting strategy, it refers to capability, cost and data storage requirements of your organisation’s unique set of needs, but not the needs of the planet.

I had to make this manageable, so, I have pulled myself away from the big picture and looked at a much smaller aspect – climate impact of the web. I considered whether anyone is or would consider carbon intensity when making decisions in the public sector? 

Would it be environmentally preferable to pick a French virtual server from your preferred cloud provider rather than a UK one. Would anyone take this into consideration?

Is setting up your fancy new app in Ireland good for the planet? Or does it make no difference at all in the grand scheme of things?

If we take a look at a map of Europe and the climate impact of each country you can clearly see the best and worst performers. 

Electricity map of Europe                                  Green = good, brown = not so good

France has a carbon intensity of 42g gCO₂eq/kWh, earning it a 96% low carbon rating. You will also find good ratings in Norway, Sweden and Finland using a combination of hydroelectric and nuclear. 

Now if we take a look at Great Britain (214 gCO₂eq/kWh) and Northern Ireland (523 gCO₂eq/kWh) things don’t look quite so good. These figures are based on consumption, and not solely focused on production, with Great Britain importing megawatts from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

All of this clearly demonstrates that France has a very good carbon intensity. To save us from a massive deviation, we will have to park any thoughts on whether nuclear fission (and other nuclear technologies) are a good or bad thing!  

A decision about where to set yourself up is perhaps easier in a country like Aotearoa New Zealand, which has no local presence from Amazon, Google or Microsoft and have to look to Australia to be able to use cloud services. 

Electricity map of Aotearoa New Zealand                          Green = good / Brown = not so good

The big three cloud providers, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have plenty of information online about what they are doing, and plan to do, to improve their green credentials. It is entirely possible for these suppliers to be very low carbon and have high renewable energy usage within a low performing country. But we also need to know what each is doing with regards to offsetting. 

While the vast majority of civil and public servants will not often find themselves in a position of control over infrastructure, far more and likely  to find they are able to control how much is sent through the pipe, with images and video being the biggest drivers of bloat. So the ability to influence the carbon cost through your design decisions is a realistic step towards carbon reduction. 

The average web page is 3MB. How much should we care? – Tammy Everts

Tackling this challenge at a public sector policy level with a mandate (I’m not a fan of mandates, but in this instance it would speed things up) would be a good place to aim. All the good work already taking place around sensible and considered design is all contributing and should only be pushed harder and talked about more. 

What can you do now? You can start by running your website through the Green Web Foundations website checker. This gives you a rating, which for is green. 

Green Web Foundation Web Checker

There are many things you can do to improve your website, and I have picked out a few of the simplest that can be implemented straight away are: 

  • Write clean and efficient code 
  • Offload large media to third-party providers that have good green credentials
  • Compress files, images, and videos to reduce file size, which results in no visible loss of quality
  • Avoid autoplay on videos
  • Stop using custom fonts, which can actually add up to a large proportion of overall page size

Finally, I found this from the W3C ethical web principles and thought it would be a good way to close. 

“The web, as a whole, is a big source of carbon emissions, because it is a big consumer of power. New web technologies should not make this situation worse. We will consider power consumption and the resulting emissions when we introduce new technologies to the web”
W3C Technical Architecture Group



Image of Kamila


Posted on 10th August, 2020:

Apart from looking at the carbon intensity of a country, does it not also play a big role what technologies are used in the particular data center to power it and to cool it? A low carbon intensity is not necessarily helpful if the given data center uses inefficient technologies, for example cooling technologies without free cooling options or very low ambient temperatures in the data centers resulting in a high cooling and power need.

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