What is Green Software Engineering?

Shortly after becoming the 2021 Fuller Fellow, I began thinking about what I could learn (potentially abroad) and implement (locally) that would contribute to my personal development as a web developer, while also contributing to Fuller’s For Good initiative.

I promptly stumbled upon the topic of Green Software Engineering (GSE) ⁠— an emerging discipline that combines climate science with software and hardware best practices.

After some general research, I wanted to learn more, and understand how best to implement the GSE practices at Fuller ⁠— both for ourselves as an agency For Good ⁠— and for our clients.

I reached out to Asim Hussain, Green Cloud Advocacy Lead at Microsoft, who was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to point me in the right direction – namely the Green Software Foundation (GSF), and the Principles of Green Software Development.

From Asim, I learnt more about the problem that GSE is aiming to solve, the leaders in the space, and how we ⁠— as developers and agencies ⁠— can leverage GSE in our day-to-day work for the good of our planet.

Read the full report here

How software impacts our environment

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry is growing rapidly, leading to a rise in the number of devices and cloud-based services and an expansion of data centres, which consume two percent of the world’s electricity and two percent of global emissions ⁠— a consumption on par with the aviation industry.

By 2030, that number could be eight percent.

In addition, while some data centre providers (like Amazon for example) endeavour to power their operations with renewable energy, the source of electricity for each data centre is completely dependent on the local region.
As a result, many tech companies and service providers face a challenging dilemma: do we opt for performance, or sustainability?

As web developers, thinking about the environmental impact of every resource we use while developing websites isn’t necessarily at the forefront of our minds. It’s very easy to ignore the carbon impact of the choices we make in favour of making choices that save us time and money.

"Due to software’s ethereal nature, it’s hard to visualise how it impacts our environment."

What industry is doing about it

In the US, all tech giants communicate publicly about the rising share of renewable energy sources in their energy consumption, or their goal to be climate-neutral in the near term. Afterall, being green is essential to please both investors and customers, and it has become a central part of corporate strategy – as shown by the listing of the top ten green software companies.

In December 2020, Amazon became the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, with 187 solar and wind projects across the globe, and projects to power all its operations with renewable energy by 2025.

Google has been a carbon neutral company since 2007 and claims that its data centres use roughly half the energy of a typical data centre.
Stripe, Alphabet, Meta, Shopify, and McKinsey have also launched a new carbon removal initiative worth $925 million.

The initiative — an Advance Market Commitment (AMC) called Frontier — aims to speed up the development of carbon removal technologies by guaranteeing demand for them in the future. The idea is to assure researchers, entrepreneurs and investors that there will be a strong ongoing market for these technologies, and that they should begin working on the problem sooner rather than later.

Additionally, Microsoft has initiated the Green Software Foundation, together with the Linux Foundation.

The goal is to build an ecosystem of people, standards, tooling, and practices to reduce carbon emissions caused by software development. One of their activities will be to develop a certification scheme and training courses for green software developers – developing a body of standards for the software industry as a whole.

Recently the Green Software Foundation held its first Global Summit, a series of free virtual and physically hosted events around the world – over the last year the foundation itself has grown 300 per cent.

What we can do about it

The first step is learning if your website is hosted in a carbon-neutral zone, or a zone contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Website Carbon Calculator is a resource that can show you how your website compares to a percentage of other websites that have been tested in terms of CO2 produced per visit. In addition to this, it will cross reference your website’s host with The Green Web Foundation, checking to see if your website is utilising green hosting.

"Calculating a carbon footprint is a complex and multi-layered beast. The more transparent corporations are about their emissions, the easier it will be for the rest of us to understand the implications of their decisions."

There are a number of apps and services in the works, which can help make this process easier.

For example, Cloverly provides a powerful API that helps to calculate carbon emissions, and “purchases offsets and Renewable Energy Credits in real time to mitigate the environmental impacts of everyday activities.”

If writing an integration with Cloverly yourself is potentially a hurdle, a plugin called Carbon Offset, developed by Ari Stathopoulos, calculates the greenhouse emissions from your website visits and integrates with Cloverly for offsets and payments.

"Migrating your company’s data to a carbon-neutral region is a big change, but it doesn’t take too much effort to start a conversation and explore what a migration would require."

The next step after investigating your hosting, is to apply Green Software Engineering (GSE) principles.

These include installing applications that minimise the amount of carbon emitted per unit of work, getting rid of large blocks of unnecessary code, reducing asset sizes and utilising modern query language (eg Facebook Graph QL or Sanity’s GROQ) that allows you to ask for the exact data you want.

It’s also about making software work smarter, not harder to reduce carbon intensity (the measure of carbon emissions produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed). Building a more sustainable site isn’t about one optimisation, it’s about thousands of fine tuning steps that increase overall carbon efficiency.

From November 1 all new Fuller websites will be developed using GSE principles. If you’d like to learn more, and understand and follow green principles we encourage you to start a conversation with our web team.

You can be a part of this rapidly growing global community of people who care about the environment, and are taking action to improve it. By striving to make your websites sustainable, you’re making them cheaper to host, faster to run, and more resilient ⁠— and that’s good for everyone.

Marko Rapaic
2021 Fuller Fellow

Download the full guide.

If you’d like to discuss how your website can have a lighter carbon footprint, get in touch with our web team.