As developers and internet users become increasingly aware of the CO2 footprint of their data usage, renewed interest in carbon offsetting programs has cropped up in recent years. These programs allow individuals and organizations to “offset” their carbon dioxide emissions by funding environmental endeavors, which range from planting trees to clean energy projects, with lots of variety in between.
Carbon offsetting schemes remain controversial, as they do not actually directly cancel out emissions. The programs allow corporations to appear “environmentally friendly” with their contributions while continuing to burn fossil fuels. Ideally, corporations will work on both reducing their emissions and “neutralizing” the damage done with projects that renew the earth.
For web developers, awareness of your product’s CO2 footprint is the first step, and carbon offsetting programs are usually fine-tuned to make this data relatable. This awareness is especially critical if the software you are building is used on millions of devices. Aris Stathopoulos, a WordPress developer known best for authoring the Kirki Customizer Framework, has created a plugin called Carbon Offset that calculates the greenhouse emissions from your website visits and integrates with the Cloverly API for offsets and payments.
“The internet is a huge machine consuming vast amounts of energy,” Stathopoulos said. “The whole chain from server farms to ISPs to client devices are usually powered by non-renewable sources of power. What really rang the ‘danger’ bell in my mind was reading Mozilla’s Internet-Health report two years ago.
“Since then I’ve been trying to help make the web a bit more sustainable. Sometimes that means converting a script to vanilla JS, building a theme, or just talking to people about things they can do to make their site more performant and more eco-friendly/sustainable. Carbon Offset is my latest effort on that front.”
The first version of the plugin includes a details page with the calculated impact of your site’s carbon footprint, displayed next to the weight of the carbon offset. I could see this page evolving to be more visually compelling in the future. The settings page is where users can hook up their sites the Cloverly API.
Cloverly offers offsets on demand, which means that users fund clean energy for one of the projects the company has selected. These include initiatives that do things like capture fugitive gas emissions, improve forest management, and convert methane from manure into renewable energy.
Browsing the WordPress.org plugin repository, it seems the platform only has a handful of plugins designed to raise users’ awareness about carbon emissions. The Website Carbon plugin gives users a broad overview of the impact of their site’s emissions, including reporting on if the data center the site is hosted in is powered by renewable energy. CO2ok for WooCommerce is another plugin that integrates with a service for purchasing offsets.
Stathopoulos wants to expand his plugin to integrate with additional services so that users have more choices in offsetting their websites’ carbon footprints. He has no affiliation with Cloverly. He said the only reason he chose to integrate with it is because they have a great API that is easy to work with. He made his implementation extensible so that adding extra services will be easy when he finds another one with a good API.
Breaking Website Owners Out of Complacency: Awareness Is the First Step Towards Reducing Emissions
“There are sites out there that measure a site’s carbon footprint and they give an idea of how much carbon is generated whenever someone visits a webpage,” Stathopoulos said. “If you start testing websites you see some good, some bad and some shockingly costly. Take for example w.org: Each visit produces 0.68g of carbon emissions, and that’s one of the good sites. NYTimes.com generates 3.2grams of carbon every time someone visits their site.”
Stathopoulos wants to use his plugin to raise awareness among WordPress site owners, since the software is so widely used but oftentimes weighed down by third-party extensions.
“With WordPress powering 30%+ of the web, we’re talking about millions of daily views,” he said. “In the unlikely optimistic scenario that all of them generate no more than 0.5g per page-load, WP sites generate no less than 500 metric tons of carbon/day. This has nothing to do with WordPress. Instead it’s about the 5MB image that the user wants on their frontpage, the fancy wiggling JS animation that requires that extra 5kb of JS, developers insisting on using jQuery in their themes and plugins, the unused 300kb of CSS that a site has, the Facebook widget, social sharing buttons than use 100kb of JS, or the horrendous use of images of text instead of plain text.
“It’s all data that gets downloaded every single time and each time it does, the server runs a few milliseconds more, the browser takes a few more milliseconds to render. It all adds up to wasted energy, energy that took real resources to generate and in the process of doing that, it generated some more carbon emissions.”
It’s easy for anyone to get complacent when the data usage seems to run on magic and doesn’t immediately impact the site owner. Plugins like Carbon Offset aim to make wasted resources more of a reality. Stathopoulos is currently working to add e-commerce support that will allow customers to offset the carbon footprint of their purchases’ delivery, or even allow shop owners to fund the offset instead. He said this will usually amount to a few cents per sale, but it can make a meaningful impact if done on a large scale.
“One of my hopes is that it will help increase sensitivity and awareness,” Stathopoulos said. “Hopefully, some people will understand that their website is part of the problem. Hopefully, it will urge them to rethink how they build their sites and want to be part of the solution – ideally by striving to lower the carbon emissions of our websites.
“But since for various reasons that is not always possible, the plugin will show how much our website costs the environment, and some may choose to give something back.”
Stathopoulos said that purchasing offsets was “surprisingly cheap.” He purchased offsets for 50kg of CO2 for approximately $4, and his website ‘burns’ 0.2g/visit.
“This means I’m good for the next 2.5 million visits,” he said. “If my site was as heavy as the NYTimes, then that would buy me 15k views worth of damage to the environment, which would be a pretty good indication that I have to change some things on my site.
“The cost is not the point. The point is being conscious about what we build, how much damage we do, and helping undo that damage as much as possible. After all, a sustainable website is a lot faster and more performant than a non-sustainable one. Everyone wins.”