When you slice up the pie of greenhouse gas emissions, there are some obvious opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint and others that are less obvious. We all associate airplanes, cars and trucks with greenhouse gas emissions; their exhaust makes the connection clear for all to see. The same goes for coal-fired power plants on a much larger scale. Buildings are another biggie, with the burgeoning green building movement taking on this opportunity. The contribution of the internet however is less intuitively obvious. What impact do our computers and information technology have on climate change? When I check my email, am I contributing to climate change?
In a word, yes. When a person visits a website (any website), this has a real impact on the world. The PC you are using right now, the network, and the servers involved all consumer power, power that has to come from somewhere and generally involves burning fossil fuels. This is such a significant issue for internet companies that Google is devoted a great deal of effort, and money, to go carbon neutral by using more efficient servers, powering them with renewable energy, and using renewable energy certificates.
Information and communication systems are now responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to Enernetics, a Boston-based company working to reduce the impact of computing and the internet on climate change. Alexander Wissner-Gross is the co-founder and CTO of Enernetics, which has its website at www.CO2Stats.com.
The prototype of the site was launched in October 2007, and the business officially launched in August 2008. They already have over 3000 sites signed up, and are seeing growth of 30% month over month according to Wissner-Gross. The companies range from huge blue chips like IBM, to medium-sized companies like Segway, and a host of smaller businesses. Other organizations and city governments are also getting involved. For small businesses with fewer than 10,000 pages views a month the cost of a plan is less than $5 a month, and even sites with up to a million page views a month only pay a flat fee of $29.95 a month.
The first step in what CO2Stats does for websites that sign up is to look at where visitors are from, where servers are located, and feed this information into the analytics suite to check their database of power sources around the world. They can examine how long visitors stay and their screen size, allowing CO2Stats to measure the greenhouse gas emissions being created. “We identify where the greatest energy efficiency gains can be made,” said Wissner-Gross. “There are inefficiencies in both content and distribution. A lot more that can be done than might have been appreciated.” Surprisingly, most energy is consumed on the client and network side than by servers hosting a site.
Next, CO2Stats works with sites to reduce their energy usage, in part by making sites more efficient. More efficient sites also load more quickly, providing the added benefit of helping to retain site visitors longer, which often translates into spending more money. For the emissions that cannot be reduced, CO2Stats purchases Green-E certified renewable energy credits (RECs) such as from NativeEnergy.
As a benefit of participating, clients are able to post a “Green Certified Site” badge verifying to visitors that they are going carbon neutral with CO2Stats. This badge helps attract and retain business to a site. Wissner-Gross reports “we’ve found that when people see the badge, they stay longer, that their stickiness is increased when a site’s carbon footprint is being neutralized.”
Another benefit to clients is that CO2Stats also allows them to post their carbon footprint live. Too often the nature of “going green” is left vague and non-quantified, leading to distrust and uncertainty about these claims. Transparency is the solution to this problem. “A key benefit is that we provide a turnkey solution for environmental transparency,” said Wissner-Gross.
The scale of the opportunity may be analogous to what has happened in the internet revolution with the need for sites to certify their ability to handle secure transactions. Just as Verisign badges on sites have helped to pave the way for web commerce, CO2Stats trust marks on sites may allow businesses and visitors to engage in web commerce with less concern about climate change. The more the internet and its climate impact grow, the greater the need for approaches like CO2Stats.