Websites and digital content can increase organisations’ carbon emissions and hamper efforts to achieve Net Zero status.

This is the view of Andri Johnston, digital sustainability lead at Cambridge University Press & Assessment, who was addressing a webinar on Sustainability in Digital Media hosted by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) Social & Ethics Committee.

Johnston outlined Cambridge University Press & Assessment’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint as it moved from print to digital content.

“There’s been a huge shift to digital in the tertiary, academic, and educational field, so while we work hard to reduce carbon emissions in the print industry there is also work to be done on the digital side,” Johnston says. “We have made a commitment to be carbon zero on all energy related emissions by 2048, with a 72% reduction by 2030.”

Johnston notes that Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (indirect) emissions were easier to control, but said Scope 3 were the hardest to track and mitigate. “These come from printing, freight and digital emissions,” she says. “The shift from print to digital in the publishing industry holds a large carbon benefit by reducing the paper, print, and freight emissions. But there will always be carbon emissions from our digital products. Going digital does not offset emissions.”

To calculate carbon emissions from digital media products, Johnston’s organisation calculates emissions from data centres, networks, and end users. “We use Google analytics to collect data around how customers access our data, the time they spend browsing, their country, device, amount of page views, and page weights,” she explains.

Page weights – the size of each Web page – can make a significant difference in digital media emissions, Johnston says.

“We ran a project over the last four years using the DIMPACT tool and saw a significant increase in our carbon emissions because we keep adding journals, textbooks, and content to our websites – with more value-adds and ‘extras’ like media and videos,” Johnston explains. “We realised our digital emissions would continue to rise – and this is the case with any digital product where you keep adding content and updates. And the more people access the platforms, the more the emissions will rise as well.

“The images and colours sites use have an impact,” she adds. “For example, green is a good colour to use to be energy-wise. High-resolution images and PNG images result in more emissions than small images. Emissions can be reduced by reducing embedded videos and instead linking out, and reconsidering approaches to SEO – not tracking just for the sake of tracking.

“Also important is where the data is hosted and where people are accessing it from. We started thinking about how to build better products with simple sustainability principles and guidelines.”

The organisation produced a Sustainable Web Guide to make Web projects energy efficient and produce the least amount of carbon emissions possible. Among the recommendations in the guide are to use less media, content and code, use renewable energy in the data centre and CDN, and keep sites and content as simple as possible.

Josine Overdevest, chair of the IITPSA Social & Ethics Committee, says sustainability is a key part of ethical practice.

“You are acting ethically when you do good for yourself, your organisation, and others,” Overdevest says. “For example, contributing to sustainable development goals and AI for good, considering society as a whole, and also the planet.

“Digital sustainability is the application of digital technologies and proactive steps in its design, development, deployment, and regulation to accelerate environmentally and socially sustainable development while mitigating risks and unintended consequences,” she says. “Digital technology can combat climate change on the offense and the defence. However, digital transformation can also have negative impacts.

“We can use digital technologies to mitigate climate change through climate modelling and monitoring, sustainable energy, carbon management, sustainable transportation such as electric vehicles and ride sharing, sustainable agriculture, and moving from a linear economy to a circular economy.

“Digital technology also enables climate change adaptation – for early warning systems, climate information and data management, remote sensing and mapping, data to support the development of climate resilient infrastructure, virtual and augmented reality, and community engagement and empowerment – platforms where people can become more involved and informed.”

The negative impacts of digital transformation can include energy consumption, e-waste generation, a growing digital divide, human rights violations, over-consumption, and misinformation – which can lead to divisions with disastrous results, Overdevest says.