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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Getting greener byte by byte


Dutch programmer Danny Van Kooten had already lowered his eco footprint by no longer eating meat or flying, but he is now having a bigger impact and all he did was tap a few keystrokes.

Van Kooten is the author of a popular plug-in that helps website owners allow visitors to a website to subscribe directly via a form embedded on the site. The plug-in also makes the site slightly bigger by adding several thousand more lines of code. Every time someone visits a site, a server has to send part of his code to their browser. Sending data to a browser uses energy; the more code you send, the more energy you use.

So van Kooten decided to slim things down. He “refactored” his plug-in, making it more efficient, so it now sends 20 KB less data. May not seem like much, however, with two million websites using his plug-in, it adds up. By his crude estimate, trimming the code has reduced the world's monthly air pollution roughly equivalent to flying from New York to Amsterdam and back 85 times.

“The code thing has been by far the biggest thing I could do,” he tells Wired, “and it takes a lot less effort than not eating any meat.”

Van Kooten's lightbulb moment is one being shared by other web designers and is being propelled by measuring the energy impact of nearly every swipe and click in our digital world. With so much of our lives now online, tiny code edits add up. And reducing code can often make web browsing more pleasant too. Consider all that advertising code that bloats websites. Everybody detests those annoying pop-up ads mopping up data to sell to advertisers. It also slows page loading to a crawl.

When the European Union's regulations forced US companies to remove some tracking code from their sites for European visitors, USA Today's homepage shed 90 percent of its data size and loaded 15 times faster, as the designers at Mightybytes, a green web consultancy, report.

Even our throwaway habits can add up. Consider all the little social emails we shoot back and forth — the “thanks”, “got it”, “lol”. The UK energy firm Ovo examined email usage and — using data from Lancaster University professor Mike Berners-Lee, who analyses carbon footprints — it found that if every adult in the UK just sent one less “thank you” email per day, it would each year cut pollution equal to 22 round-trip flights between New York and London. They also found that 49 percent of us often send thank-you emails to people “within talking distance”.

There are even bigger targets. Sixty-one percent of all online activity is video; Netflix alone accounts for 13 percent of it. Bitcoin's annual eco-footprint is roughly that of Sri Lanka’s. And training a single artificial intelligence (AI) model can generate up to five times the lifetime environmental footprint of a car, as research by computer scientist Emma Strubell and her colleagues has found.

Perhaps one day we’ll see websites ditching their tracking bloatware and running badges boasting about their faster performance and lower footprint.

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