WordPress, the web and the climate

Today is global climate strike, all over the world. I have been dealing with the problem of climate change for several months now, but unfortunately I am on holiday today. So I prepared a small blog post instead of a strike:

Anthropogenic climate change is real. And we are all part of the problem. In a year in which we in Europe have broken several heat records at once and are struggling in some places with violent wildfires and drought, I do not really want to waste time on such trivial statements, despite a few stubborn climate deniers.

Anyone who thinks about the climate damage they cause themselves will quickly have air travel, large apartments, cars or meat consumption on their list. But there is one comparatively large factor that we all too easily overlook: the Internet.

Why should I care?

Every time a website is viewed, sleeping computers are woken up, data is transferred and processors are used. And that’s true both somewhere “on the Internet” as well as on my desk.

Internet already accounts for just under 10% of the annual global energy consumption. By 2030, this figure should rise to over 20%. These figures pose a problem, especially in a world where a larger proportion of this energy is generated from non-renewable coal-based power.

As in many other areas, we have also neglected necessary improvements to the Internet for too long. It is high time to tackle the big problem of this century in order to keep the global climate at least halfway stable.

The problems surrounding the climate are just as diverse as their consequences. Therefore, I would like to focus on one topic in particular: the CO₂ emissions of websites.

A third of the web

The Internet – or more specifically, the Web – is not a monolithic structure, but is composed of a colourful patchwork of different services and offers. The big players such as Amazon, Google or Facebook obviously have a big lever for rapid change. The “free” web is much more sluggish in some regards. Progress, improvement and further development spread much more slowly.

But there are some bigger players on the free web as well. And as luck would have it, I’ve been working for over a decade with an open source project responsible for a third of the web. Of course we are talking about the content management system WordPress.

So no one should be really surprised that, after looking at the problem in detail, I thought about what we need to do in order to make WordPress, and thus a third of the web, more climate-friendly. The challenge is to counter a trend towards ever more complex and overloaded websites.

The good news is that basically no technical solutions need to be developed for this. We already have all the tools for climate-friendly websites in our hands, only we must finally be consistent in using them.

What has to be done now

At the global level, it’s time for a joint effort by the community. We need to focus on performance and efficiency (and therefore resource efficiency). Every feature that makes its way into the WordPress core should be checked for these factors just as it is the case for accessibility today.

The same applies of course to themes and plugins. We can no longer tolerate developers transferring unnecessary (and really ridiculous) amounts of data to accomplish the simplest functions and designs. Simplicity and elegance must become more important in our perception, and themes that fail to reduce weight and so mitigate their negative impact on the climate must sooner or later disappear from the market.

It is as problematic as it is simple to demand such drastic steps from an entire industry. And it is precisely here that the question arises as to whether and how such a process can be supported. Let’s take a look at accessibility once more: within the WordPress project we have an accessibility Team (a11y for short) in which volunteers with unbelievable specialist knowledge accompany the entire project and try to provide advice. So why don’t we have a sustainability team (s12y) that does the same for sustainability?

What we can all do

But we don’t have to wait for (political) changes, we can all do something right now. Some things don’t even need vast experience with WordPress or web development.

On websitecarbon.com, similar to a speed test, any URL can simply be tested for its CO₂ emissions. The tool calculates the assumed output based on the amount of data transferred and can multiply this by the number of page views (if available). This is an excellent starting point to evaluate the effectiveness of all subsequent steps.

Without any previous knowledge in programming we can look at all our websites and throw off unnecessary weight. Does this site really need a Google Map? Is this picture gallery really necessary? Who actually needs this plugin here? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to encourage you to turn the web into a pure text wasteland, I want to encourage you to analyze what already exists and to remove what you don’t need.

If you develop your own plugins and themes (or have them developed for you), you can do even more. Code used can in many cases be simplified, old code libraries updated or completely removed. Any byte that is not transferred saves resources. Besides, our websites get faster, which not only pleases the visitors, but also Google.

If you sell your own plugins and themes, this effect will be even stronger. If code is used on more pages, the number of times the code is transmitted to visitors (or bots) increases almost automatically. Time to streamline your products!

This list can be extended almost arbitrarily and I would be pleased about further input to the topic in the comments.

What I do

Now I’m in the comfortable position that my pages have been optimized for performance (and thus automatically for resource saving) for quite some time already.

That’s why I spend my time giving talks on the topic – most recently at WordCamp Zurich, soon at WordPress Meetups in Leipzig, Bonn, Koblenz and Munich.

My goal here is not only to raise the awareness for the topic, but also to collect more like minded people. I started wpforfuture.org to make this a bit easier. In the future, the site will collect best practices and all kinds of things worth reading and make them as easily accessible as possible for everyone. The newsletter there keeps all those interested up to date.

Furthermore, I am currently spending a lot of time preparing WordCamp Stuttgart. Our Orga team is working hard to make the whole event as sustainable as possible and to take up the topic of sustainability in the sessions as well.

What do you do to make your website more climate-friendly? I am looking forward to your comments.