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Reducing your IT carbon footprint

Image: Adobe Stock / troyanphoto

In a world as busy and varied as IT is today – leading digital transformation programmes, keeping hackers at bay, and firefighting operational challenges with scarce resources — reducing an organisation’s carbon footprint doesn’t always make it into the top five priorities.

Even so, sustainability is steadily rising to the top for many businesses. 40% of executives polled in a 2022 study conducted by Bain and the World Economic Forum believe digital technologies are positively impacting their sustainability goals. And 10% worry digital represents a risk to sustainability.

The reality is that corporate attention to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) targets is getting more and more focused. Investors and financial regulators are signalling they will make both companies and asset managers responsible for public statements they make about their plans here. In fact, enforcement of ESG obligations is now absolutely on the table.

So, if it hasn’t happened yet, at some point very soon you will be asked what you and your team are doing at ground level to move the sustainability needle. Customers are becoming increasingly aware of the GHG (GreenHouse Gas) costs that their favourite brands incur. It was estimated, pre-Covid, that the combined carbon footprint of using the Internet and the back-end systems that make it work comprise 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, the same as the global air travel sector.

One of the most effective ways to reduce bandwidth is to reduce image and video file sizes

How do these huge figures translate to what the average user does every day? The US Department of Energy says that the average American power plant expends 600 grams of CO2 for every kWh generated, and The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy calculates that every 1Gb of data transferred takes 5.12 kWh of electricity.

This means that transferring just one Gig of data produces roughly 3 kilos of CO2. And one of the heaviest processes that we do when we transfer is move or download/upload visual images and videos. Brands increasingly rely on visual media to connect and engage with consumers. Therefore, managing and delivering this media as optimally and sustainably as possible is one area where reducing that GHG emission would be a clear win for both your ESG drives and the planet.

If one of the best ways to improve the CO2 footprint of a website or app is by reducing the amount of bandwidth, one of the most effective ways to reduce bandwidth is to reduce image and video file sizes.

Sounds pretty easy, right? But when you’re managing ten or hundreds of thousands to millions of visual media assets (and for a Fortune 100 company, easily millions, if not tens of millions) it’s far from being a trivial job.

Even better is to then convert media assets into new, lightweight formats or codecs that best match users’ devices. I’ve seen this in action with one of our own customers – a top international sports apparel brand. Automating image processing means it was able to reduce bandwidth consumption by a very significant 40% (from 6.8 Terabytes per day to just over 4.05).

That means that over the course of just 12 months, this one team saved 618 TB of bandwidth, which equals a very welcome 1,890 tonnes of CO2 saved – equivalent to taking more than 400 gasoline-powered cars off the road, or enough energy to power 368 homes for a year.

Reducing your IT carbon footprint

If optimising your visual media business process like this makes sense, the next question is ‘how?’. The easiest way to optimise images and videos is by using automation. AI-based tools do this by automatically setting the optimal file format, file size, compression rate, and visual quality for an image or video in real time as you work, ensuring the lowest amount of bandwidth as possible is used, but still always at the right minimum to display extremely well on your visitors’ devices.

If you don’t want to immediately use AI or third party tools, there are many other things you can do to save bandwidth and so curb your imagery CO2 GHG. A simple but very helpful move is to mandate a company-wide shift to smaller, lightweight image formats and video codecs for frequently used images and videos like WebP, AVIF, JP2, HEIC and JPEG XL or AV1.

Another easy win: use caching and/or a CDN (content delivery network) that’s set up as a geographically-distributed group of servers working together to provide fast Internet content delivery. This approach reduces bandwidth load because the closer the cache is placed to users, the less traffic needed, minimising the CO2 footprint. Many CIOs are now deliberately asking their cloud or infrastructure providers to serve them out of data centres that favour the use of renewable energy. And the market is listening to this demand, with the global green data centre market expected to be over $120 billion by 2026.

How you start to reduce your IT’s carbon footprint is up to you. I have seen in many contexts how simple but effective smarter image handling and transfer can really start the ball rolling here.

However you decide to move forward, I recommend getting started soon. You will likely have to answer questions on the contribution IT is making to your organisation’s overall ESG ambitions, and managing your visual media more optimally will deliver fast and measurable improvements.

Tal Lev-Ami
Tal Lev-Ami
Co-founder and CTO at Cloudinary

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