Carbon hacking is a provocation to explain the impact of digital web design on carbon emissions. Carbon hacking imagines a future scenario where a hacker replaces pixels from websites with a black dot. The more carbon the website needs to run itself, the more pixels will be ‘stolen’. This leads to a less consumable/readable content, including commercially beneficial content like advertising. This would directly impact the business owners and their finances and would force them to take action and improve their digital carbon emissions. The pixels are ‘liberated’ once the site has a 0% carbon footprint.
Carbon hacking can also be a way to raise awareness about the impact of digital products both for the tech and the general public. This also includes a set of guidelines for designers on how to respond to the carbon emissions of digital products.
There is nothing immaterial about the products we build. The internet is the biggest machine in the world, and it runs mostly on fossil fuels. According to the BBC, the internet causes around 4% of global emissions, which is more than the airline industry, and it’s growing by around 5% per year. The IT industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to reach 14% of global emissions by 2040. Even the UN’s International Telecommunication’s Union has asked the industry to reduce its emissions by 45% over the next decade.
Digital services and products have taken over most areas of our lives, radically changing how we live and engage with each other. This has happened thanks to the rapid growth of devices and networks. While technology has become more reliant, and efficient in storing, loading and processing data, digital interfaces and products have become heavier. Microsoft Windows’95 operating system weighed 19mb in 1995 while today Microsoft email weights almost 300mb. Moreover, all these digital products consume energy stored in batteries and the network infrastructure that runs the internet, which translates to energy consumption too.
We get so much utility and joy from the internet but we can’t keep on building digital products like they are immaterial. As designers, we must be aware of how the products we help create are impacting the climate.
The sustainable design practice is starting to flourish. Currently, products like Ecograder or Websitecarbon can help measure the carbon emissions and give best practices to improve the website’s carbon consumption based on the result. There are also organisations like Sustainable Web Design or ClimateAction.tech creating design best practices for designing low carbon consumption websites. These initiatives are still very niche and do not reach a wider population which is where Carbon Hacking comes in.
For now, it is a speculative tool that aims to put digital designers in a hypothetical situation where the pixels of the pages they design get stolen—first aims to visualise how “dirty” a website is by taking as many pixels out as carbon consumption. Then, a set of tips aims to boost reflection and encourage a low-carbon digital design practice.
The website’s carbon emissions have been measured using Ecograder, and the design tips have been created by collecting the knowledge provided by organisations that aim to lower the carbon impact of the internet; every tip has links to its original source.
Reme Martìnez Castillo
Reme has a backround in design and engineering. She is currently based in Oslo and working at Designit as a User Experience Designer. As a designer her main goal is to bring forward a do-no-harm design approach, using design as a change maker for a better impact.