How we’ve made the web dirty

Whenever we are using the internet, we unintentionally contribute to climate change, in an avoidable way. Luckily, there are some things we can do about it.

Words

Chris Adams

This article by Chris Adams was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Software is heating the world

Nearly 10 years ago, Marc Andreessen of the venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, used the phrase “software is eating the world” to describe how technology was transforming our way of life, as well as our economies. The phrase has stuck, and with good reason. In 2018, seven out of the 10 largest companies by market value globally were tech companies. And in the same way the growth of the automobile shaped our cities, the way we relate to each other, and ended up being responsible for a measurable chunk of global carbon emissions, the same is true of the internet and more widely, the tech sector. 

The tech sector is responsible for 2% to 4% of global emissions today. That’s less than all automobile transport, but roughly comparable to the global emissions of all shipping, or aviation.

There are a few key places this colossal environmental impact comes from. We’ll focus on carbon emissions in this piece, although there is a lot to say about other impacts associated with tech, like sourcing rare earth metals for batteries, or conflict minerals for smartphones. 

Where does this footprint come from?

We’ve spent years selling the internet as a cloud and a lot of work has gone into making the term ‘cloud computing’ commonplace. Now, it’s worth thinking about what the term implies. It’s the perfect example of the phrase “out of sight, out of mind”, and because clouds suggest lightness, effortlessness: an invisible tether, that makes our devices work, we don’t think about countless miles of armoured cable laid across oceans. Or data centres the size of football pitches, full of servers whirring loud enough to be listed as an occupational hazard. Or the huge mining machines digging up coal to burn, so we can meet the prodigious amounts of power these data centres consume.

Typically, data centres have been built close to where energy is generated. And because they work around the clock, they have often been built where predictable baseload of energy is generated. More often than not, this has meant data centres rely on fossil fuel-powered electricity, and as the internet has grown, so has the energy demand, without much discussion of where it comes from.

The problem is that even as our electricity grids transition to more sustainable sources of energy, by dropping coal in favour of renewables, for instance, this doesn’t automatically mean we’re getting a much greener internet. That’s partly because the internet, while distributed around the world, is not evenly distributed. If you were to look at a map of all the major infrastructures of the internet, you’d see that it clusters around a number of geographic features. The reason behind this is that there is a cost, both in time and money, to move data around the world, and even though that cost dropped over time, the rate that we generate and use data for processing has grown faster than this cost has dropped.

This creates incentives to increase the amount of infrastructure in a few places, rather than distribute it evenly. So, where we’ve previously seen data centres built in places with good access to fossil fuel energy, and in a regulatory environment that favours established fossil fuel industries over renewables, you’ll often see even more internet infrastructure being built, often using the same kinds of ‘grey’ power mixes.

The best example of this is the Data Centre Alley in North Virginia, USA. Here, the county of Loudoun boasts that 70% of the world’s internet traffic passes through its digital infrastructure. With 13.5 million square feet of data centres in use, and another 4.5 million planned or developed, it’s the largest concentration of infrastructure in the world. Most of the power needed for this data centre comes from a single company, Dominion Energy, which runs a particularly dirty energy mix, with most of its energy coming from fracked gas, coal and nuclear power. Less than 5% comes from renewables, and this figure will barely pass 10% by 2030.

While this is a pretty depressing situation, when we consider the sweeping changes needed to reach zero carbon emissions, there is hope. In 2018, Google was the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewables, and like Microsoft, it now either runs all of its data centres on renewable power, or at least purchases offsets for carbon emissions from the electricity they use. They also share annual, independently audited reports of their carbon emissions and the steps they are taking to reduce them. This information can be hard to find though, and because diverse ecosystems are healthy ecosystems, The Green Web Foundation has, for the last 10 years, been building an open database of which companies run on renewable power. That way we can check if the services we use run on fossil fuels, and either use different services, or ask them to switch.

Tech workers are waking up

Thankfully, we’re finally starting to see awareness-raising in the tech industry and there is an emergent will for a greener internet, as well as a greener grid. The World Wide Web Consortium, for instance, is an international community that develops standards for the web. Anyone making a browser (think Chrome, Firefox, etc.) can follow these standards to make the web work for everyone. In May 2019, their Technical Architecture Group published the Ethical Web Principles, explicitly stating that the web should be a sustainable medium.

All around the world, employees in tech companies are increasingly starting to use their status to push for change, even when management doesn’t, by using the fact that they’re often paid in company stock as well as cash, to exercise their rights as activist shareholders. In May this year, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a group of more than 8000 employees, confronted their CEO at the company’s annual shareholder meeting about their lack of climate leadership, proposing a shareholder resolution to take more drastic climate action.

This time the resolution was voted down, but the act has already triggered similar actions in other companies, and it’s been a long time coming but people are finally starting to acknowledge that the cloud is made of servers, and that right now, those servers mostly run on electricity from fossil fuels. The good news is that doesn’t need to, and the web can and should be green.

 


Chris Adams is an organiser of ClimateAction.tech, a community for tech workers concerned about the climate, and a Director of The Green Web Foundation, working for a zero-carbon web.