The Web Environmental Footprint, in short

It’s that time of the year during when most of us disconnect to visit beaches and hike in mountains, a well deserved break that Mother Nature helps us enjoy. This summer post intends to share recent findings on climate change, and specifically the impact of the Web on our Environment.

Developers, web leaders and computer scientists are intrinsically sensitive to the Environment as one of our Commons. We deal with proper commons governance everyday, the Web being our environment; actually, the Internet then the Web in 1990 was created to share. Our hope is that realtime data crunching, coupled with IoT will curb the environmental impact of our species from 1.5:1 today to 1:1 balance within a generation. Hence, all of us empower and develop the sharing economy of knowledge, houses, cabs, news, and energy.


Global Footprint Network – Earth biological use and capacity

We have now reached the point where the potential of the Web to curb -by sharing- creation and consumption of resources no longer needs to be demonstrated. But we still need to work on the Web environmental impact to reach a sustainable model.

This post summarizes findings of, lead author of Web Eco Design, and includes an infographic summarizing key facts.


What are the environmental impacts of the Web?

Today, there are 9Bn Internet-connected user devices:  2.1Bn smartphones, 1Bn PCs, 400M tablets, 4Bn IoT connected devices and other devices, and 1.5Bn TVs. Here, we purposely excluded 4.6Bn non-smart phones and other devices from this study, as their access to the Internet is variable. In the next 5 years, the same population of devices (smartphones, PCs, IoT, connected TVs) will reach 21Bn (up to 75Bn in some studies).

These 9Bn devices connect to 45M servers (extrapolated from JG Koomey, now Google Scholar, research on 2005-2010), and approximately 800M network equipment (routers, ISP boxes, core switches) connect these clients to servers.

If we take all these devices and equipment into consideration, here is the footprint of the Web every year:

  • 1 PWh of power, i.e. 40 nuclear plants or consumption of 3Bn people on Earth
  • 608Bn kilos of Green House Gas, equivalent to the consumption of 603M humans
  • 8.7Bn m3 of water, that is – per AQUASTAT database of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – water withdrawal from 280M people


Global Resource consumption / yearUser DeviceNetworkDatacenterTotal
Power (TWh)2954003431,038 PWh
GHG (Mt CO2 eq.)288172149608 Mt CO2 eq
Water (M m3)2,4732,9993,2998,7 Bn m3

Total Resource consumption during Build (Scope 3) and Use (Scope 2)

The yearly footprint of each of the 3Bn Web users has reached:

  • 346 kWh of power, that is consumption of 10 Haitian for a year,
  • 203 Kg of GHG, the equivalent of the yearly emission of 1 Afghan,
  • 2 924 Litres of water, equivalent to building 3 smartphones or 2,5 years of survival for a human, knowing that 50M humans die every year due to insufficient water access.

When is this impact happening? When building components or using them?

Let’s now be more granular to understand the environmental impact of a user, network or server device at each stage of its lifecycle: Build, Use and Disposal. As each of us could build 3D-pie charts, histograms and other graphs with our favorite frameworks, let’s show plain data:

Resource use during Build Phase / yearUser DeviceNetworkDatacenterTotal
Power (TWh)16411450328 TWh
GHG (Mt CO2 eq.)2294317289 Mt CO2eq
Water (M m3)1,1661351081,4 Bn m3

Total Resource consumption during Build Phase (Scope 3)


Resource use during Build Phase / yearUser DeviceNetworkDatacenterTotal
Power (TWh)131286293710 TWh
GHG (Mt CO2 eq.)59129132320 Mt CO2eq
Water (M m3)1,307286431917,3 Bn m3

Total Resource consumption during Use Phase (Scope 2)

Key learnings:

  • Use of Power and Water happens predominantly during the Use phase (68 and 84%): the usual focus on the Use phase makes sense for them
  • GHG impact is evenly shared between Build (48%) and Use (52%) phases
  • Build stage impact comes from end user devices, rather than network and datacenter devices
  • Run phase impact comes mostly from the uninterrupted run of the network and datacenters 24/7
  • Water is being consumed during 3 stages: building of devices, energy creation and cooling of datacenters.

At this stage, this study does not include the impact of resource depletion (e.g. rare earth) and pollution by ewaste, well covered by UNEP. Study shows that use of non-renewable resources, pollutions and health impacts happen during the Build and Disposal phases.

Front end developers: share best practices

The size of web pages has multiplied by 115 over the past 20 years, from 14KB to 1.6MB. Web pages are (usually) nicer than in the past, but core service such as booking a ticket has not gone 115 better in the past 20 years. Paying attention to the environmental footprint when creating infrastructures or coding a site can have a large impact: Linkedin, for instance, has reduced its footprint by a factor 100 by adapting its server architecture.

Data centers: less cooling, more coolness

Most of the Water in the device-network-datacenter chain is used in Datacenters for cooling. Key focus should thus be to limit the number of servers, hence limiting their cooling needs. That links to best practices in web and app coding. For remaining servers, datacenter owners focus on reducing cooling by:

  • Selecting server and network equipment with low power consumption, and tolerance to temperature and humidity variations (ASHRAE). It allows them to cool equipment directly with outdoor air, chilled air, or with a water circuit between outside and inside the datacenter.
  • Adopting best practices: cold alleys, containerization, high consignment temperatures…

As a result, under a temperate climate like in France, it is possible to run a moderately-dense datacenter without air cooling.

Best Practice Sample: #72/100 = Use of reverse proxies and cache

As I read through the book in its initial French version, I wanted to have an idea as to whether our component was covered. And yes, cache and proxy were recommended, plain good ol’ Haussmann architecture, I mean Mr Fielding will appreciate. And 3 green leaves for this practice, top environmental impact!


We are now running benchmarks based on these dimensions too, not just technical and economical performance; and we will share results when we are all back from these beaches and mountains that we all want to preserve for our grandchildren.  For those who like to read magazines under the sun, here is a summary press review on the subject:

United Nations Environmental Program has been evangelizing on Climate Change for the past 20 years, with not much impact on our day-to-day life. In recent months, Climate Change has been recognized as a fact, with Sea levels now raising by 3mm a year and accelerating. Very recently, it was designated as a priority by community leaders, including the Holy Father Francis in May, the Economist, the G7 in June, and endorsed by the Dalai Lama. This sudden surge of endorsement will culminate with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aka COP21, at the end of the year in Paris.


**Original source: blog


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