Is your code killing the planet?

Melissa Marshall
Melissa Marshall
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Your hacky solutions do worse than annoy your colleagues.

 

Do you put on a jumper rather than turn your heating up? Do you turn off the lights when you leave your house? What about turning off your long-forgotten coding projects? It’s easy to forget that tech is responsible for a tremendous amount of carbon emissions every year. According to ClimateCare [2], the carbon footprint of the internet is estimated to be larger than that of air travel. As on-the-fly computing becomes even easier and cheaper, tech industry workers must remember the impact their products can have on the planet.

Climate-conscious individuals can work to reduce their internet-related emissions in several ways. Using a smaller screen, connecting to wifi instead of data, streaming video in lower quality are all ways to limit the energy consumption of your scrolling habits. But as the amount of time we spend online increases (thanks COVID) and more people around the world get internet access, expecting every individual to limit their consumption enough to offset this growth is totally unrealistic. Instead, it’s imperative that tech companies step up to the plate to tackle the carbon cost of their products.

Thankfully for the planet, some data-intensive companies are already using innovative engineering to tackle their energy consumption. Netflix provides millions of hours of video all over the world every day. Their engineering team works hard to optimise the energy consumption of their servers, increasing their bandwidth-per-watt by an impressive 200% between 2015 and 2017. The company also uses renewable energy to power their content delivery systems where possible and pledges to offset the rest [1]. Given that Netflix can account for as much 40% of North American internet traffic volume at peak times [3], their commitment to reducing their energy needs is great news for the environment.

Even if you don’t work at a tech giant, there are some straightforward ways to reduce the energy required for your product. Engineers can have a huge impact by writing efficient code, minimising data transfer between browsers or apps and servers, and being conservative with data collection. Designers can create product experiences that minimise the amount of time a user needs to spend on a site to complete a task, as well as reducing use of high-res images and videos. And for larger organisations, operations can make a huge dent – is your office powered by a renewable energy provider? In our new work-from-home world, how could you incentivize your employees to switch? Reducing the energy consumption of your product as well as the energy needed to power your day to day operations can have a surprisingly positive impact on the carbon footprint of your business as a whole. It will save you money too.

At Quin, it’s long been a part of our ethos to reduce the energy consumption of our app. Originally this actually had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with serving people with diabetes better. We didn’t want the app to run down your phone battery and leave you phone-less just when you needed it, which is why we rigorously test the performance of our code before every new release. We always want our users to have the choice to keep their data private, so the app works with or without data sharing. We measure how long our users spend in the app and design our flows to get people in and out as quickly as possible. Even though these policies came out of wanting to do the right thing for people with diabetes, it’s the right thing for the planet as well. As we become more climate conscious as an organisation, we will continue to look for ways to reduce the impact of our business on the environment.

To tackle the climate crisis, everyone needs to pull together, big and small. The biggest tech companies are promising to get to carbon-neutral which is a great start, but they should set even more ambitious targets as technology evolves to make this cheaper and easier. Smaller companies make up the long-tail of tech-related carbon emissions and also need to play their part. If you work at a tech company, think about ways you can influence your business to reduce energy consumption, particularly for your downstream users. It’s not just good for the Earth, it’s good for business.

 

References:

[1] “About Netflix – Renewable Energy At Netflix: An Update”. About Netflix, 2020, https://about.netflix.com/en/news/renewable-energy-at-netflix-an-update.
[2] “Infographic: The Carbon Footprint Of The Internet – Climatecare”. Climatecare.Org, 2020, https://climatecare.org/infographic-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-internet/.
[3] “Internet Encryption Hits 50%: Netflix Eating 15% Of Global Traffic”. Computer Business Review, 2020, https://www.cbronline.com/news/internet-encryption-sandvine.

Melissa Marshall
Melissa Marshall
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