Digitisation comes at a cost. When more devices are performing more functions, they require more energy, which often results in more carbon being produced. For many people, the issue is largely based around hardware – computers, laptops and smartphones which support software. After all, it is these devices which need electricity, some of which is wasted in the form of heat.
However, software itself has an impact too. After all, software is basically a list of instructions the hardware needs to perform. Although hardware is what uses the energy, it is the software which triggers this consumption. The more complex the software, or the more inefficiently it has been programmed, the harder computer systems need to work to perform its functions. This results in more waste heat generated and more energy being used.
An increased realisation of the impact of software upon energy use has led to the burgeoning sustainable software movement. Perhaps most notably has been in the increase in criticism of crypto-currency and blockchain platforms which use extremely energy intensive algorithms to operate. The recent explosion in NFTs in particular has grabbed headlines, with even charitable organisations themselves coming under fire for their connection to NFTs.
The push for cleaner code has been supported by government organisations, such as the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) which has now developed a new award criteria for its long running Blue Angel ecolabel. For over 40 years, the Blue Angel ecolabel has shown consumers which products – from cars to kettles and everything else – are truly friendly and sustainable. The Blue Angel label is the oldest ecolabel in the world, but only now is it also being applied to software.
The Award Goes To…
The first Blue Angel for software has been awarded to Okular, a Universal Document Viewer developed by open source software developer KDE, making it the first computer programme to ever be officially certified as eco-friendly.
At first glance, Okular might not seem like such an ambitious project – after all, it merely presents PDFs, EPubs, images and other formats on screen. This is something done by countless other pieces of software. However, it is entirely for this reason that it was selected for the award, as it performs functions of other software, but with increase efficiency.
All of this has a knock on effect, the more efficient a piece of software is, the less energy it needs and the less carbon ultimately produced. More efficient pieces of software also put less strain on hardware systems such as GPUs and cooling systems, meaning they last longer and maintain their level of performance. All of this helps make the digital age more sustainable.
As well as being more efficient, Okular also adheres to other sustainable software principles stipulated by the Blue Angel award. These include amongst others: backwards compatibility, uninstallability, modularity, transparent privacy agreements, offline capabilities and freedom from advertisements.
It is hoped initiatives such as the Blue Angel for software will not only educate consumers to the role software plays in the carbon footprint of their digital lives, but also create a new metric by which software developers can compete. Perhaps soon we will see computer programmes, video games and streaming services which boast of their more sustainable approaches. Although this will likely open up new opportunities for greenwashing, it may also make our veracious consumption of digital technology a little better for the environment.