What to keep in mind next time you need to choose a web host provider and want to minimize your climate impacts.

From the data centers’ impacts on climate to the risks of offsetting emissions and claiming carbon neutrality, everything you need to know to make sure your web host provider is really putting the planet first. 

If you have been looking to reduce the carbon emissions generated by your website, you might have paid attention to your web hosting provider and opted for a “green” one. But, here’s the thing: there are different shades of green among those service providers.

That is why we’re telling you all about the key variables to keep in mind if you want to choose a web host that (really) puts the planet first.

Why your choice of web host provider might be more important than you think.

Data centers have a direct impact on energy consumption …

Energy consumption and emissions from a website are directly related to total data transferred, which is dependent on page weight (affected by number of videos, carousels, specific colors, fonts…more on that in a future blog article).

Those emissions are consequence of digital electricity consumption and can be split into three phases, following data transferred through the process

The website is stored in a data center

Once someone makes a request to access the website the data is sent across the transmission networks.

The last stage of energy consumption is the end device while accessing and navigating the site.

As a website owner, you have very little control over the last two stages. However, regarding data centers, there is definitely something to be done to make sure your website is as sustainable as possible.

… an impact that keeps on growing.

This possibility to act is important from a climate perspective because data centers account for 1% of the world’s electricity consumption and are expected to keep growing. Indeed, demand for storage space in data centers across the world has been increasing by 30% every year over the last decade, even more so over the pandemic. 

The good news is that despite this increase in data storage, global data centers’ energy consumption has been almost constant, thanks to their impressive improvements in efficiency. However, it is expected that those improvements won’t be able to keep up with the increasing data demand over the next decades. 

The need to contain this growth in energy consumption is critical, which brings us back to the initial question; what can be done about our impact? The answer seems to be looking for service providers that make sure their data centers’ impact is minimum, often called green hosting services.

Why you should consider green hosting your website.

From considering two main factors to reduce the impact…

Where and when are climate impacts taking place over a data center lifetime? We can split the main data centers’ impacts in two

The embodied emissions are related to how the data centers are built and the materials employed.

Construction materials like steel and concrete are very significant sources of emissions worldwide, that is why choosing construction materials with lower climate impact can have a significant impact on a data center’ total embodied emissions.

Operational emissions can be lowered in two different ways:

The first key factor, the energy efficiency of a data center, is broadly measured with a ratio called Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), which indicates the amount of energy needed in the facility (cooling, lighting, etc.) to provide energy to the computing equipment. For example, if a facility consumes 2 kwh in order to provide 1 kwh to the servers, its PUE will be 2. 

The most efficient data centers have PUEs around 1.2. Looking at this number, if available, is helpful to understand which data center will generate less impact. 

Having said that, there are limitations to the PUE metric, because the results get distorted by the server’s efficiency and don’t capture other environmental impacts such as water usage.

Electricity, the other key factor,  has different carbon intensity (carbon emissions per kwh consumed) depending on the mix providing this energy in each jurisdiction; grids with high contribution from renewables are cleaner than those still relying on fossil fuels like coal or natural gas.

For example, a server in Texas will generate 60 times more carbon emissions than the same server in Vermont. 

… to tackling the issue in two different ways.

The best way a data center can reduce this impact is by generating its own clean (green) energy from renewable sources. Having your own green energy ensures minimum impact and doesn’t contribute to the electricity grid’s structural demand, which is great because our grids are in enough trouble already (as we mentioned in a previous blog).

The next best option is building the data center in a place where the electricity grid is as clean as possible. Once this is ensured, another location factor to consider is the local climate, because data centers generate high amounts of heat and require intensive cooling processes, contributing to their overall energy consumption. To minimize this issue, some of the largest service providers are building data centers in cold countries like Sweden.

Why choosing to green host your website is not enough.

Mind the "green hosting" claim...

There is already a significant number of hosting services providers that have commitments to reach 100% green energy across all their global operations. But many organizations support their green hosting claims by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) rather than focusing on the actual electricity consumed in their facilities.

A REC is produced when a renewable energy source generates clean electricity (one megawatt-hour) and delivers it to the grid. The logic to purchase RECs and assume that our emissions will be offset with our money works well on paper: 

Even if we consume dirty electricity, the money invested in RECs will contribute to the development of clean energy somewhere else, and since the atmosphere doesn’t care as long as total emissions are reduced, we could feel pretty good about ourselves.

… when it is only supported by inefficient RECs...

Unfortunately, the RECs market is inefficient at best and plain useless in many cases. This issue is not exclusive to the RECs market, many different types of carbon markets are a constant headache for those in charge of designing and implementing them, and one of the never-ending discussion topics in international climate negotiations.

 There are two principal issues:

Also called additionality. If the project would exist regardless of this revenue stream, the extra income is not additional and purchasing those credits will have no real impact on reducing emissions. 

This issue is very relevant in the RECs market because frameworks are not well established across different jurisdictions. One organization can produce green energy, sell it to their customers as clean electricity, and still sell the RECs generated in the process to someone in a different country. While this already triggers some carbon accounting issues between jurisdictions, it wouldn’t be that bad if the revenue from the RECs market were dedicated to increasing their clean energy generation output.

The problem is that in many instances this is not the case, for example, a recent study shows that organizations relying on RECs to meet their climate targets are severely overestimating their emissions reductions.   

Even if we assume that they are offsetting their emissions somewhere else, their grids need to have the capacity to provide energy for them, therefore having more challenges to phase-out coal or natural gas electricity generation facilities while meeting demand.

.. because offsetting emissions should be the last resort in your climate plan.

Having said that, offsetting emissions is not necessarily bad (our own server provider at footsprint does it), just inefficient. We can use them as a last resort in our annual practices and climate plans as long as it doesn’t distract us from the real goal, which is reducing our carbon emissions anywhere we can as fast as we can. 

We hope that this message is not getting lost among the many conversations about Net Zero, offsetting, carbon capture, etc. We can’t reduce our emissions fast enough, and thinking that having remaining emissions is Ok because we’ll be able to offset or capture them is just not what climate scientist are telling us: For most organizations, Net Zero is pretty much zero emissions, and relying on offsets (especially if they are inefficient) will make almost impossible to meet the 1.5-degree target.

How to make the right choice in your web hosting journey?

You might now be under the impression that choosing a web host is an exhausting journey. To be honest, it hasn’t been easy for us at footsprint either! We hope our story will help you in your decision process! We know we can do better and are also still learning.

From following our guidelines…

As a company focused on helping other organizations in reducing their digital emissions, we, at footsprint, wanted to lead by example and be consequent with our mission, limiting our clients’ and our own digital pollution to the minimum. 

Once we understood a bit better the green hosting arena, we looked among those data centers that try to be energy efficient (very low PUE) and looked for the possibility to hosting it in a clean grid: in our case Quebec, since is one of the cleanest grids in North America and part of footsprint’s team lives in Montreal. On top of that, our green provider purchases RECs to offset several times our energy consumption, but this is just a plus in our opinion. 

All this seemed to have ended well for us, ensuring that our website is always stored in a cold country with a very clean electricity grid in an efficient data center, right?

… to minding end-users’ location...

Even after confirming that our web would be hosted in a green host in a green grid, there is still room to consume carbon-intensive electricity in the process.

The reason is because in order to reduce loading times, websites can be hosted in several locations at the same time. This service is provided by global content delivery networks (CDNs), organizations that have multiple servers across the world in order to store data near the user and provide fast delivery of Internet content.

This means that if enough people visit footsprint website from France, our website will be stored in a French server owned by a CDN that has an agreement with our hosting services provider. How efficient is this server or how clean is the electricity consumed by it at any given point is way beyond our control, but we are sure that the generated emissions are not zero.

… while not claiming net zero or carbon neutrality.

As you have seen, we are not ready to claim that our website is hosted with zero emissions impact

Despite that, you can see in our website a logo that says “eco friendly website”. What does this logo mean at this point? It just means we are not a zero emissions website yet, when someone accesses our site from Canada, our emissions are very low, since it is an efficient data center in an almost 100% clean grid (Quebec) with cold temperatures. 

Once the website is accessed from other places in the world, we have no control over which server is being used, and we assume that many of them will be consuming electricity with higher carbon-intensity. Our server provider also purchases RECs, but as we have mentioned before, we have concerns about the effectiveness of this mechanism. 

To summarize, here are 4 things you need to keep in mind next time you need to choose a web hosting provider.

If we try to make it simple:

Look for green servers running on 100% clean electricity (or close) and very low PUE across their global operations (1.2 is a good reference).

If there is more than one with similar characteristics, look at the embodied carbon of their facilities.

Keep track of the commitments that networks are making to reach zero operational emissions (both with clean energy and very efficient infrastructure)

If you only need a local server, it might be easier to find one that runs 100% on clean energy.

Otherwise consider a global service provider or a local one in partnership with a sustainable CDN.

If you want to learn more, here is a very helpful blog from Wholegrain Digital.

Juan Sotés

Impact Measurement Director at footsprint.

Throughout his more than 10 years of experience in environmental sciences and global warming, Juan has worked in both private and public sectors, and more specifically for the Toronto Atmospheric Fund as carbon and co-benefits analyst. He joined footsprint in order to help the industry accelerate the transition towards digital sobriety. His expertise in carbon measurement and GHG protocols will contribute to develop and strengthen industry frameworks.

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