We're back! Ahead of her talk at Pixel Pioneers Bristol, we catch up with Hannah Smith to explore what impact digital has on the planet, how Hannah got into sustainable web development and consulting, and some easy first steps for anyone to take meaningful action
Can you share a few eye-opening facts about sustainability in tech that might surprise people?
The one many people will have heard of before is that if the internet was a country it would be the seventh biggest polluter in the world. I think it helps to put into perspective just how much pollution the internet creates.
Another good one is that the internet is estimated to create more carbon emissions than the aviation sector.
And lastly, e-waste (electronic waste) is the fastest-growing waste stream in the EU. In 2021, an estimated 57.4 Mt (mega tonnes) were generated globally, of which it’s estimated 60 percent went to landfill and were not recycled. I think it’s fair to say our relationship with electronics needs a bit of a rethink!
What are the main challenges the tech industry is faced with when it comes to its impact on the planet?
One of the main challenges that keeps coming up is knowing what tech options are the most planet- and people-friendly. So many of the negative impacts are unseen by us because we are so abstracted from where our resources come from. The negative impacts are often borne by communities that don't have a voice inside our industry and that we don't know the true extent of. The same is true of the ecological impacts, we just don't really understand their true extent.
It's incredibly difficult to draw a line between the tech option that you choose and the people or ecological systems that suffer as a consequence of your use of it. There is some great work going on in this space but it remains very foggy.
Related to that is being able to accurately measure the carbon emitted as a result of someone using a digital service across the whole stack. There are some great services out there estimating parts of it: for example Website Carbon Calculator, which measures the CO2 emissions of a user visiting a website, or Cloud Carbon Footprint, which measures all the energy being used by cloud compute services. But putting all of that together in one comprehensive way isn't there yet. It's a bit like trying to calculate scope 3 emissions in a regular business, it's super tricky!
How did you get into sustainable web development and consulting?
About six years ago, whilst working as a freelance WordPress developer, I got involved in co-organising the WordPress Bristol group, which led to me co-organising WordCamp Bristol 2019.
One of the main things on my mind when organising WordCamp Bristol was to make the event as sustainable as possible. At that point I was mainly concerned with travel and food. I hadn't really considered the environmental impact of the WordPress software itself nor of digital technologies in general. I put feelers out for a few speakers to come and talk about environment-related topics and one of the organisations that answered my request was WholeGrain Digital. They did a talk called “A Study in Green”. Later that summer I attended WordCamp Europe in Belgrade and heard Jack Lenox give his talk “How Better Performing Websites Can Help Save the Planet”.
It was those two things together that helped the penny drop for me that tech itself isn't harmless and does have an environmental impact. So whilst we need to continue looking at ways to improve our own personal impact on the planet, as an industry there is a lot we need to start talking about.
Two years ago I co-founded Green Tech South West as another route for bringing people together to explore the topic.
It’s great to see more awareness of these issues within the industry and to now be approached to help other people estimate and reduce their own impact.
You're currently a Green Web Foundation fellow. What do you do as part of that programme?
As part of the programme I have been researching the connection between climate justice and tech. I have to be honest, at the beginning of the fellowship I'd never really looked into climate justice before and didn't really know much about it. It's really opened my eyes to the importance of taking a broader view of sustainability beyond the scope of just reducing carbon emissions.
That broader scope takes into account issues like justness and fairness by thinking about people, and asking who is bearing the brunt of the impact of climate change. The short answer is it’s really not those people who did the most to cause climate change who are suffering, and will suffer the most.
Climate justice asks us to think about fair and equitable solutions to the climate crisis. Given that tech is an accelerator of solutions, I think that's very important within the tech sector for us to understand us. We can unwittingly perpetuate the same kinds of ‘solutions’ that have caused the mess we find ourselves in.
Also as part of that programme I have convened some workshops to create a vision for what a sustainable digital tech industry might look like taking into account those broader considerations.
I hope the main thing that people will take away from my talk is that whilst, yes the decarbonisation of digital services is important, if we don't do that in a just and equitable way, we won't make any difference whatsoever on the root causes of climate change. It’ll be like squeezing a balloon. We’ll make some progress in one area by pushing the problems somewhere else. We’ll just end up repeating the same ways of thinking that got us into the mess we're in now, but in a slightly different way.
Making low-carbon or carbon-aware services is a great step. It's a part of what we need to do. But more importantly we need to address what motivates us as a tech industry, the values we embody as individuals and the global systems that we are accelerating through applying our skills. Those aren’t easy questions to grapple with, but we need to face up to them as an industry.
What are three easy things people can do straight away to reduce their (or their organisation's) carbon footprint?
Move any digital services you run to renewably powered infrastructure, for example hosting and data centres. There are lots of options out there especially in Europe. And tell the hosting company that was a factor in your decision to move to them.
Optimise your digital services. Pay specific attention to media, for example the use of videos and images. These account for the majority of the carbon emissions for the end user.
Delete stuff! Storing digital data does have an environmental cost, so undertake a digital spring clean and get rid of any old files, logs, analytics data, emails etc that you no longer need.