Why carbon intensity is a key data source for reducing digital emissions

  • Insights
  • Sustainability

You might have heard of the term ‘carbon intensity’ in climate change and net zero talk, but what does this mean for you and your business?

How can digital professionals use it to reduce the emissions produced across the internet?

Understanding carbon intensity is a win-win for everyone - individuals, businesses, and the planet. It helps to reduce both costs and CO2emissions. By being aware of the carbon intensity of the electricity our digital products, we can help collectively reduce the digital emissions produced across the internet with carbon-aware digital experiences.

Back to basics: what is carbon intensity?

Carbon intensity is a measure of how clean our electricity is and can be measured on a national or regional level. It refers to how many grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) are released to produce a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity.

Electricity generated through fossil fuels creates higher CO2 emissions, whilst renewable energy, such as wind, hydro or solar power emit significantly lower or often zero CO2 emissions. The carbon intensity of a region will be lower when the amount of electricity it is generating at the time from renewable sources is higher.

Reading from the UK? Find out what the carbon intensity is in your local area now from the dashboard containing live data from the National Grid.

The benefits of understanding your current carbon intensity

Understanding how green our electricity is at a given moment with carbon intensity data can help influence our behaviours to maximise our use of greener electricity and reduce our CO2 emissions impact. Today many countries have legally binding emission reduction targets, including the UK with its net zero 2050 target, meaning this carbon intensity data has become increasingly relevant.

Adjusting behaviours to use less energy when carbon intensity is high can also lead to cost-savings for bill payer(s), which is now reaching UK households with concepts like time of use tariffs. This behaviour adaptation can be realised in many ways, from someone running their washing machine on a timer at 4am (if the carbon intensity is lower then), to a company performing energy-intensive activities — like heating a swimming pool — at differing times of the day or differing days of the week.

Unlocking these win-win benefits starts with a shared understanding of what carbon intensity is, how it works and where you can get this information so it can inform your decisions and behaviours.

Using carbon intensity data to improve digital experiences for your customer and your business

A digital experience (be it a web, mobile, tablet or tv app) could read nationalised or localised carbon intensity data to offer a carbon-aware experience, which aims to reduce the equivalent emissions impact through its consumption when the intensity in the area is particularly high.

Whilst there are practices to achieve a carbon-efficient website emerging, these practices can go further to create this carbon-aware experience. Practicing carbon-aware development can go beyond the website or user experience itself. 

A carbon-aware digital experience could alter its behaviour when the carbon intensity is high to:

  • Lower the default quality setting on playing videos, particularly useful for media-heavy sites such as YouTube or Netflix. Netflix have done this before at the height of the pandemic, albeit to stop the internet breaking!

  • Reduce or remove images on load. For example, only a single product image may be loaded on a commerce product page — if loaded at all — with the user needing to ‘opt-in’ by clicking to view more.

Going a step further, a carbon-aware digital estate could:

  • Swap used server locations based on regional intensity, for example the request could route to an Ireland data centre if London has a high carbon intensity.

  • Have variable pipeline timings, rather than fixed schedules, so it run at times the carbon intensity is low.

  • Increase the max age of cached assets during carbon intense hours for example when the carbon intensity is high in the UK, caching time to live could dynamically increase on assets or pages (such as a cached server-side rendered website) to reduce network demand in these periods.

What to consider when building a carbon-aware website

If your business is taking steps to reduce the emissions generated by your website, communicating relevant insights (such as current carbon intensity level or predicted savings) where possible will provide meaning to the experience. Giving users the option to opt-out of carbon-aware browsing will provide a way for them to see the full experience still when required (sometimes, you really need that video in 1080p!).

If a carbon-aware version of the site exists, it is important to not fall into a trap of increasing the emissions produced by a browsing user in real terms through poor practices. Making the website 50% “smaller” (in data transferred) and reducing some unnecessary requests is likely to help reduce emissions, but not if they spend twice as long navigating and trying to find the information that is trickier to find in the carbon aware version of the site. A carbon aware website should reduce non-essential noise, but not at the expense of core value.

An excellent example of a carbon aware website is Organic Basics (Low Impact). This experience is not the default site for customers during carbon intensive periods but does utilise the data by taking it offline when the carbon intensity is too high. When it is offline, context is provided – the current carbon intensity figure is shown with an estimated time until the intensity becomes low enough to serve the experience again. If you’d like to learn more about this, they open-sourced their low impact website on GitHub.

The approach of a site like Organic Basics is more of an opt-in to a carbon-aware experience than opt-out. For some contexts, perhaps this is the right approach. In either case, a useful addition is for these experiences to ‘remember’ your previous preference (a bit like how an app or device remembers a dark mode setting). Revisiting the same website to see a different experience could be jarring to a user and it may end up making them emit more emissions than less — even if that means continually serving them the full, non-carbon-aware, experience — because of other factors such as local device caching.

A lot of the above practices focus on reducing data transfer, but that isn’t necessarily going to reduce network energy usage. However, it still has a role to play and techniques like longer caching periods based on carbon intensity — which may result in less requests over the internet — could reduce the network energy used to serve your website by resulting in fewer powered-on servers needed to meet the demand.

Where to get started with carbon-aware development

A website can make use of carbon intensity data by either using regional averages or getting a more specific metric using forecasted or actual intensity data.

If you’d like to look at using regional averages to get started, The Green Web Foundation maintain a JavaScript library, CO2.js, that enables developers to estimate the emissions related to the use of their apps, websites, and software.

If you’d like to look at using forecasted or actual data and you’re a reader in the UK, getting the carbon intensity of the area you’re in right now can be done using the Carbon Intensity API from the National Grid.They have hosted API documentation to get started and if you’d like to read more from the National Grid on the data and its use, you can do so on the website for carbon intensity.

And if you'd like to understand more about the power of carbon intensity data to here is some suggested reading:

Looking to find out more about sustainable digital experiences? MMT can help in delivering carbon efficient and carbon aware websites with sustainable digital practices. As one of our services, we also offer Digital Sustainability Assessment, with insights from industry experts including our own co-founder, James Cannings, our Chief Sustainability Officer at MSQ and co-chair of BIMA’s Sustainability Council.