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Beautiful web experiences are coming at a cost to the planet

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Could a slower and simpler internet suit us all better, and come at less of a cost to the environment?

As the world’s most powerful states pledge to limit global warming at the COP26 summit, we’ve all been following along online – but is that contributing to the problem?

At its best the modern internet delivers near-instantaneous service, loading the content of rich web pages from distant data centres to our screens in the blink of an eye.

But perhaps something slower, something simpler, would suit us just as well and come at less of a cost to the environment, asks Dr Werner Vogels, the chief technology officer at Amazon.

“As humans we’re addicted almost to high imagery, to beautiful experiences, however we also need to realise that that comes at a cost,” he told Sky News in an interview.

Werner Vogels, Amazon.com's chief technology officer. Pic: Reuters
Image:Werner Vogels: ‘We’re addicted to beautiful web pages’

Most people knowingly interact with Amazon as consumers. By some counts Amazon.com is the fifth most visited website in the UK and there are annual stories about its low tax payments compared to its high revenues, something which the company attributes to a “high volume, low margin” business model.

But the company’s real footprint on the internet and our lives comes through its subsidiary Amazon Web Services (AWS) which holds about a third of the global cloud computing market, more than any of its rivals.

Without realising it, people interact with AWS every time they access content from Spotify, Reddit, Twitch and Netflix among many others – and these interactions have a carbon footprint.

Cloud computing is in itself a much more environmentally-friendly option than the alternative, where small businesses and enterprises host their own IT infrastructure.

Partially this is due to economies of scale – back in 2013, a case study funded by Google – which also runs cloud services – claimed moving software applications to the cloud drops energy usage by 87%.

A recent study publicised by AWS said that its customers could reduce the carbon footprint of their IT operations by up to 88%, preventing between 400 to 1,000 metric tons of emissions every year.

But it is also a result of cloud companies developing technologies to make the most of the energy consumed in their own data centres, which is commercially – as well as environmentally – friendly.

AWS uses its own Graviton processors to reduce the energy cost of cloud workloads and designed its own server boards so that when the energy comes in as direct current it doesn’t need to be changed to alternating current.

Amazon Web Services. File pic: Reuters
Image:Amazon Web Services is the largest cloud computing company in the world

Even despite these savings, Dr Vogels told Sky News, there are important questions about how much energy businesses really want to use and whether doing so makes that much of a difference to their customers.

“If you were willing to have a latency of 1.7 seconds for your web pages, versus 1.2 seconds, how much capacity could you save? And how much more greener would you be?” he asked.

Getting a webpage to load quickly is crucial for businesses. Some research has suggested that people will leave a site if it takes more than three seconds to load – but the 0.5 seconds difference between the best and worst options could, in aggregate, save tonnes of carbon from being emitted every year.

It is not only a matter of speed, but also of content. Dr Vogels, who is a keen Twitter user (joining in 2006 with the handle @Werner) said: “If you look at Twitter, about 60-70% of messages these days have imagery and video combined… If you have less rich websites, are they more sustainable?”

There are widely varying claims for how much carbon dioxide is emitted per view of the average webpage, usually several grams, and it of course varies by the page.

News websites, which people visit to receive information, usually contain a lot of images, text, and videos to help communicate that information, and their homepages can cost 2.11g of CO2 to load.

Google’s homepage – undoubtedly the most popular site on the web – contains just a few links and a javascript tool for people to enter their search term, and costs just 0.35g of CO2 per load, according to Open Innovations.

The computing for that search takes place in Google’s own data centres – which the company says are carbon neutral – but the infrastructure needed to send the results of the search to your screen does emit carbon.

Google's homepage emits just 0.35g of CO2 per load
Image:Google’s homepage emits just 0.35g of CO2 per load

“As humans we’re addicted almost to high imagery, to beautiful experiences, however we also need to realise that that comes at a cost,” Dr Vogels told Sky News.

Individually, these are very small emissions of carbon compared to the estimated 43 billion metric tonnes the world is emitting every year, where a metric tonne is equivalent to 1,000,000 grams.

For something like Google’s homepage – which for the sake of comparison we’ll say is visited four million times a day – if it emitted 2.11g of CO2 per load, the result would be seven metric tonnes of additional carbon emissions every day.

With people visiting thousands of websites a day, the impact of designing a webpage so it is rich with content can rapidly scale.https://climatecounters.sky.com/total-emissions

For AWS, that means informing customers how to handle what the carbon cost of their business decisions is.

Dr Vogels said: “That’s an extremely important topic, and we are working with most of our customers on this to really help them get the business that they like, but at a cost to the environment that they think is acceptable.”

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Science & Tech

Meta: UK competition regulator tells Facebook owner to sell GIF library Giphy

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The investigation into the acquisition has been acrimonious, with Meta previously being fined £50m by the CMA for deliberately refusing to comply with the regulator’s inquiries.

Facebook’s owner Meta has been issued a legally binding order to sell the GIF library Giphy after an investigation found the takeover “could harm social media users and UK advertisers”.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an in-depth investigation into the deal in April after raising a number of concerns. It subsequently warned of the potential forced sale in August.

Giphy – a website for making and sharing animated images, known as GIFs – was acquired by Facebook (now Meta) in May last year to integrate the GIFs with Instagram, but the CMA has now ordered the acquisition to be unravelled.

Sky News understands Facebook intends to appeal the CMA’s decision. It has four weeks to do so and the appeal would go to a the Competition Appeal Tribunal, which is independent of the CMA.

Meta could potentially challenge that ruling in the UK courts, but only on points of law.Advertisement

Facebook has rebranded to Meta
Image:Facebook’s parent company was renamed Meta last month

Stuart McIntosh, who chaired the independent inquiry into the acquisition, said: “The tie-up between Facebook and Giphy has already removed a potential challenger in the display advertising market.

“Without action, it will also allow Facebook to increase its significant market power in social media even further, through controlling competitors’ access to Giphy GIFs.

“By requiring Facebook to sell Giphy, we are protecting millions of social media users and promoting competition and innovation in digital advertising,” Mr McIntosh explained.

The investigation into the acquisition has seen points of acrimony, with Meta being fined a record £50m by the CMA for deliberately refusing to comply with the regulator’s inquiries.

Meta argued that it has been in compliance with the competition watchdog’s primary orders at all times.

At the time of the fine, the company complained that the CMA delayed for seven months a request to amend these orders which was eventually agreed in what the company described as nearly an identical manner to what had been requested.

When Facebook first merged with Giphy it terminated the image library’s advertising services, “removing an important source of potential competition” according to the CMA.

This was considered “particularly concerning given that Facebook controls nearly half of the £7 billion display advertising market in the UK”.

However in Meta’s response to the preliminary findings, the social media giant described the acquisition as a simple vertical merger and said that Giphy was financially troubled and suggested that its attempts to monetise its GIF library for display advertising were unsuccessful.

“If GIF paid alignments were the promising business model that the CMA believes they are, then one would expect to encounter them in the real-world at scale… Yet that is not the case,” the response stated.

According to the regulator, the acquisition potentially also enabled the social media giant to change the terms of access to the GIF library for its competitors.

“For example, Facebook could require Giphy customers, such as TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat, to provide more user data in order to access Giphy GIFs.

“Such actions could increase Facebook’s market power, which is already significant,” the regulator said.

In its review of the merger, the CMA said it risked entrenching Meta’s market dominance, noting that its platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) already accounted for 73% of all user time spent on social media in the UK.

A spokesperson for Meta said: “We disagree with this decision. We are reviewing the decision and considering all options, including appeal. Both consumers and Giphy are better off with the support of our infrastructure, talent, and resources.

“Together, Meta and Giphy would enhance Giphy’s product for the millions of people, businesses, developers and API partners in the UK and around the world who use Giphy every day, providing more choices for everyone.”

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COVID-19: Mild and moderate cases during pregnancy doesn’t harm babies’ brains, finds study

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Parents should be reassured, there is “no evidence that a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child” say scientists.

Mild and moderate coronavirus infections in pregnant women appear to have no effect on the brain of the developing foetus according to a new study.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic “there is evidence that pregnant women are more vulnerable” to the coronavirus, according to a study presented to the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The new study aims to identify what the possible consequences are for the unborn child if the mother is infected during pregnancy, and to study the likelihood of the virus being passed on to the foetus.

“Women infected with SARS-CoV-2 during pregnancy are concerned that the virus may affect the development of their unborn child, as is the case with some other viral infections,” said Dr Sophia Stoecklein, senior author of the study.Advertisement

“So far, although there are a few reports of vertical transmission to the foetus, the exact risk and impact remain largely unclear,” added Dr Stoecklein, from the department of radiology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

“The aim of our study was to fill this gap in knowledge regarding the impact of a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection on foetal brain development,” she added.

MRI scans were used to study 33 pregnant women who were infected with COVID-19 during their pregnancy, with the women roughly 28 weeks into the pregnancies at the time of the scan.

The scans were evaluated by radiologists with years of experience in foetal MRIs who found that the brain development in the assessed areas was age-appropriate in all of the children, with no findings indicating any infection affected the brains.

“In our study, there was no evidence that a maternal SARS-CoV-2 infection has any effect on the brain development of the unborn child,” Dr Stoecklein said. “This fact should help to reassure affected parents.”

But she cautioned that only mothers with mild to moderate symptoms who were not hospitalised were included in the study, meaning the impact of “severe infection on brain development in the foetus has not been conclusively determined”.

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Earth’s water may have come from the Sun, new research finds

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Researchers at the University of Glasgow say there is evidence that particles emitted by the Sun created water on the surface of dust grains on asteroids which hit Earth.

The origin of Earth’s water continues to be debated by scientists – whether it was here when the planet formed or if it had an extraterrestrial source.

But new research points the finger at a previously uncounted point of origin: the Sun at the centre of our solar system.

According to astronomers, solar radiation may have created water on the surface of dust grains carried on asteroids that smashed in to our planet billions of years ago.

Alaska has been hit by an earthquake. File pic: iStock.
Image:Water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface – but scientists aren’t sure where it came from

Water covers more than 70% of our planet’s surface, but the exact source has puzzled scientists for decades if not longer.

A new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy suggests it has found a source which perfectly matches the isotopic signature of water on Earth.Advertisement

The research, led by scientists at the University of Glasgow, used a process called atom probe tomography to analyse different asteroid samples – some of which carry water and others which orbit too close to the Sun to do so.

Dr Luke Daly, from the University of Glasgow and the study’s lead author, said: “The solar winds are streams of mostly hydrogen and helium ions which flow constantly from the Sun out into space.

“When those hydrogen ions hit an airless surface like an asteroid or a space-borne dust particle, they penetrate a few tens of nanometres below the surface, where they can affect the chemical composition of the rock.

“Over time, the ‘space weathering’ effect of the hydrogen ions can eject enough oxygen atoms from materials in the rock to create H2O – water – trapped within minerals on the asteroid.

“Crucially, this solar wind-derived water produced by the early solar system is isotopically light.”

“That strongly suggests that fine-grained dust, buffeted by the solar wind and drawn into the forming Earth billions of years ago, could be the source of the missing reservoir of the planet’s water,” Dr Daly added.Thousands of people could still be killed by a completely unpredictable asteroid impact

Professor Bland at Curtin University explained that the existing theory that water was carried to Earth in the final stages of its formation by water-carrying asteroids didn’t hold up to examination.

“Previous testing of the isotopic ‘fingerprint’ of these asteroids found they, on average, didn’t match with the water found on Earth meaning there was at least one other unaccounted for source,” he said.

“Our research suggests the solar wind created water on the surface of tiny dust grains and this isotopically lighter water likely provided the remainder of the Earth’s water,” added the professor, who works at the Space Science and Technology Centre at Curtin University.

“This new solar wind theory is based on meticulous atom-by-atom analysis of miniscule fragments of an S-type near-Earth asteroid known as Itokawa, samples of which were collected by the Japanese space probe Hayabusa and returned to Earth in 2010.

“Our world-class atom probe tomography system here at Curtin University allowed us to take an incredibly detailed look inside the first 50 nanometres or so of the surface of Itokawa dust grains, which we found contained enough water that, if scaled up, would amount to about 20 litres for every cubic metre of rock,” added Professor Bland.

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