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The Internet’s Climate Quandary and the Inconvenience of Practicing What We Preach

It all started earlier this year in June. I was coding transcripts of the past global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meetings as part of a data mining exercise for DiploFoundation’s Geneva Internet Platform (GIP). Pouring over transcript after transcript, the work was tedious, but I was learning a great deal about the Internet governance community as well. My interest was piqued by the conversations, the familiar names I came across, and the multi-stakeholder manifestation of politics, perspectives, and positions. One transcript in particular really struck me, though: the transcript from the fourth meeting of the Dynamic Coalition on Internet and Climate Change (DCICC).

The interest I took in this particular IGF Dynamic Coalition (DC) was two-fold. The first was a sense of vigor. Since climate change is one of the biggest threats to humanity’s existence (if not the biggest) and is already a clear and present crisis, I was impressed this was an issue being raised at the IGF. Moreover, as a firm advocate for the IGF process, I was filled with a sense of pride that the community was being so forethoughtful and proactive about this issue—one that has massive existential significance for me.

Yet, I was also filled with a fusion of curiosity and confusion. Why had I not heard of it before? I thought back to my first IGF meeting, IGF 2015 in João Pessoa, roughly eight months prior. Given my interest in climate change, I wondered why I had not tried to attend the DCICC session in Brazil, but I also could not recall seeing one listed on the schedule. Sure enough, I looked up the IGF 2015 schedule and there was no DCICC session to be found. At this point, my intrigue and inquisitiveness got the best of me. I looked up the DCICC page on the IGF website with the hopes of finding more information, but discovered the last time the DCICC convened at a global IGF was almost two years ago at IGF 2014 in Istanbul.

Bearing in mind that, according to both the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as well as NASA, 2016 is set to yet again be the hottest year on record, something didn’t add up. With global average temperatures rising at levels that far eclipse historical precedent, why stop discussing this important topic now, right when it seems it is even more relevant, gaining more support, and being taken more seriously by the international community, governments especially?

That’s when I reached out to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the secretariat of the DCICC, and received some crushing news. Due to the perceived lack of interest in issues related to the Internet, information and communications technologies (ICTs), and climate change being addressed within the overall IGF as well as the lack of progress being made, members of the DCICC communicated their frustrations privately—i.e., off the mailing list—to the DCICC’s coordinators at the ITU. As a result, this led to the suggestion that the DCICC be officially closed. When I began writing this essay in mid-September, there was still no final word on the DCICC’s fate; however, I cannot help but think that the root of this issue is one that should never have been contested in the first place.

Connecting the dots between carbon and the Internet

Let’s start with why this matters. It involves that contentious and mildly obnoxious term: carbon footprint. I know—it’s not exactly a sexy topic, much less one that’s “cool” (it was one of Lake Superior University’s banned terms in 2009, and for the record, that wasn’t meant to be a global warming pun). Yet, it is a concept that is highly relevant to the Internet. According to various statistical sources, including the DCICC’s own statement on climate change and the Internet, “ICTs currently contribute 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” a figure based on the 2008 Global e-Sustainability initiative (GeSI) SMART2020 report, which examined how to enable the low carbon economy in the information age. To put this into perspective, “if the Internet were a country, it would rank as the fifth-largest for energy consumption.” Meanwhile, other statistics abound on the Internet about its global carbon footprint, painting a bleak outlook for the future. Add to that the uncomfortable reality that to effectively govern a critical global resource means heavy reliance on air travel, which also contributes to about 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, it places a lot of existential pressure on the Internet governance community and policymakers while also providing even more impetus to produce effective, sustainable, and impactful outcomes at global meetings.

When we think about the Internet and ICTs in general, many of us often get lost in the cloud and forget about the physical side of the Internet. The fact is, all of the physical infrastructure that makes up the Internet—whether it be undersea cables, data centers, mobile network towers, or Internet exchange points (IXPs)—require significant amounts of energy, all exacerbating the Internet’s already growing carbon footprint. In the case of cables, it’s the carbon released during the manufacturing and laying process in addition to the power required for the landing stations; in the case of data centers, it’s the amount of energy needed to power and cool the servers, which generate a lot of heat; in the case of IXPs, it’s the backup generators needed to ensure the exchange stays online if there is a power failure, as well as the daily power and cooling needs.

It’s not just Internet infrastructure either, but the very devices we use to access the Internet. According to this comprehensive overview by CCCB Lab of the connection between the Internet and climate change, the individual devices connecting to the Internet (PCs, mobile phones, laptops, smart devices, appliances, etc.) are responsible for a significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions connected to the Internet. After all, they require power to operate as well as draw energy from the cloud and physical infrastructure with every email sent, photo shared, and cat video watched.

Data generation and our climate quandary

Given how much content is generated every second on the Internet, one has to wonder about the sustainability of the Internet’s energy use. Studies like this Greenpeace report, for instance, highlight how as cloud computing continues to expand, it will also continue to consume more energy as well. Such findings are only reinforced by other studies, such as the 2016 paper by researchers from Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, which warned that “the rapid growth of remote digital sensors and devices connected to the Internet—the Internet of Things (IoT)—has the potential to bring unprecedented and, in principle, almost unlimited rises in energy consumed by smart technologies.” Additionally, after interviewing Dr. Mike Hazas, one of the researchers involved in the aforementioned study, the writer of this article shared the following data:

“The increase in data use has brought with it an associated rise in energy use, despite improvements in energy efficiencies. Current estimates suggest the Internet accounts for 5 percent of global electricity use but is growing faster, at 7 percent a year, than total global energy consumption at 3 percent. Some predictions claim information technologies could account for as much as 20 percent of total energy use by 2030.”

The risks at hand and related challenges do not end with energy consumption, nor are they limited to certain areas or regions, such as Africa. Climate change also threatens the very existence of the Internet. The irony of the Internet contributing to its own demise is only reinforced by the fact that if rising sea levels lead to more flooding, major storms grow in severity, intensifying heat levels burn up server farms, and data centers become more remote, critical Internet infrastructure will struggle to stay online—after all, the physical infrastructure of the Internet cannot operate underwater (submarine cables aside, of course). Other than the significant and adverse affect on quality of service (QoS) and economic consequences for all stakeholders involved, it would greatly impact the robust and reliable nature of the Internet that at least 3.5 billion of us (and growing) have all become so dependent on and accustomed to.

Shaping our climate future: Every problem has a solution

Fortunately, our present quandary, while urgent, isn’t all doom and gloom; there is reason to be hopeful. Solutions are manifesting in a variety of ways, led by actors across stakeholder groups, and many of these solutions specifically seek to discern how the Internet and ICTs can become completely sustainable in the future as well as better address and ultimately solve 21st century challenges.

The first and most obvious solution is the use of renewable energy. The price of solar is declining to unprecedented lows and battery technology is rapidly and significantly improving, while local initiatives like Solar Sister help to bring solar power to rural communities across Africa. Wind power, along with solar, is propogated as the solution to the energy consumption problems generated by the rise of the IoT, while wind energy innovations—such as Makani, which Google X is incubating—are helping to substantially increase the accessibility of clean energy. Companies such as Apple, one that has long been committed to reducing its environmental impact, are already employing hydroelectric dams to power some of its data facilities. Renewable energy is also getting smarter as well as more innovative, all while powering homes, cars, and progress.

The second involves increasing the energy efficiency of data centers. This can occur on myriad levels, including building data centers in cold climates to take advantage of the naturally low temperatures of the surrounding environment. Another solution comes from Google (Alphabet), which is investing significant time, expertise, and resources into making its operations greener and as carbon neutral as possible. Aside from offering multiple resources on data center efficiency, Google is also improving efficiency through machine learning and DeepMind artificial intelligence. Other resources exist on how to make data centers more efficient as well, such as those offered by the ITU and the Energy Star program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The ITU also has multiple resources on ICTs and energy efficiency, e-waste, and other environment and climate change-related topics. Furthermore, the more widespread use of energy efficient cloud computing as a whole, especially by industry and governments, is estimated to save millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide as well as millions of dollars. Simply put, protecting the environment is good for humans, life on Earth as a whole, the Internet, the environment, and the bottom line: economics.

Solutions are also dependent on genuine multi-stakeholder collaboration, especially between industry, government, policymakers, researchers, and international regulatory bodies. The ITU, for instance, publishes resolutions on climate change and ICTs that act as a good resource for policymakers and researchers. Governments have a big role to play in shaping more climate-friendly energy policies, drafting legislation, and ensuring compliance with existing standards, laws, protocols, and policies, such as the European Union’s push to phase out coal power plants. Moreover, serious and robust legal procedures to hold institutions accountable for spreading false information about climate change or downplaying its significance are finally taking place as well. Even aviation, which is a crucial facilitator of global Internet governance processes and practically a necessity for the Internet governance community, is responding to the call to be innovative and more energy efficient—including both private industry as well as regulators.

One important point to mention is that ICTs can also have an enabling effect on reducing the impacts of climate change. For instance, the 2015 GeSI Smarter2030 report revised the percentage of total global carbon emissions predicted in their 2008 report (cited above) “due to a range of investments companies in the sector have been making to reduce their emissions and to the expected improvements in the efficiency of ICT devices.” Moreover, the GSMA asserts in their 2016 Mobile Industry Impact Report that mobile networking will be critical to assisting with both disaster response as well as mitigating the effects of climate change—for instance, by becoming more energy efficient, through innovative home solar solutions, such as a program in Pakistan, and helping to support the IoT. Indeed, ICTs are a key component to creating a more sustainable world, be it through videoconferencing and remote participation, smart grids, climate change monitoring, and the proliferation of e-commerce or e-government services—as one less person having to go to an office and wait in line can save time, money, and the planet.

Tying it all back together: Internet governance and climate change

One of the final sentences of the aforementioned paper by Hazas et al. that stood out to me was: “Our community is well placed to help shape these debates and possible futures.” While it was not clear exactly which community they were referring to, I read this as a call to action by the Internet governance community as a whole. Especially given the U.N.‘s emphasis on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the call for the sustainability of the Internet in the Tunis Agenda, and IGF 2016’s focus on inclusive and sustainable growth, it seems counterintuitive, though, that the relationship between energy, climate change, and the sustainability of the Internet is not taking center stage. Not only should the Internet governance community advocate for energy policies that will help shape a more sustainable future of both the Internet as well as the wider world, we as a community should reflect more on what produced the initial impetus of this essay, which ignited my curiosity to begin with: the possible dissolution of the DCICC.

And this, very much so, has to do with my own bias. After years and years of facing exasperating climate change denial in the United States (my passport country), my initial assumption when I was told that there had been interest in closing the DCICC was that governments or companies pushing a pro-fossil fuel agenda were behind it. I humbly admit, however, that I could not have been more wrong.

I wanted to know which stakeholders objected to the DCICC’s work, so I reviewed the archives of the DCICC mailing list, hosted by the ITU. I found that 35 emails were sent in total between 1 September 2014 and 22 September 2016—the period between the last meeting of the DCICC and the time of the final decision about what will become of the DCICC. Of the 180 email addresses registered on the mailing list, including mine, only five individuals were engaged in conversation about the DCICC’s work, including me (note, however, that according to the ITU staff coordinating the DCICC, some individuals had chosen to reply directly to the staff and not to the email list. Also bear in mind that five of those 35 emails pertained to this essay). Much to my surprise, there was not opposition to the DCICC’s work from a government official, an energy company employee, or a notorious climate change denier. I struggled to understand where the interest to close the DCICC stemmed from, only to find my sobering answer. The problem did not stem from advocacy by an individual stakeholder or from apathy or a lack of interest from other stakeholders. The contention and underlying frustration expressed seemed to arise from the lack of interest in the DCICC’s work from the IGF environment and community itself, as well as the lack of productivity in achieving outcomes related to the DCICC at the IGF as a platform. In fact, one of the statements expressed by a DCICC member to describe the lack of support for climate change-related topics at the IGF was: “[I’m] ready to continue to work in this direction instead [of] begging at the door of IGF where nobody is interested to listen [to] this kind of discourse.”

Upon reading this, I was filled with a strong sense of both disappointment and embarrassment. Disappointment in the apparent lack of support given to the DCICC’s remit by the Internet governance community, and embarrassed at my own assumptions. What is ironic is that the DCICC had explicitly called on the Internet governance community in a previous outcome document to do more to enable the environmentally sustainable Internet ecosystem the IGF claims to strive for and facilitate the kind of future we hope to realize.

Thankfully, when discussing whether the DCICC should be closed or not, no one called for the work to stop completely. On the contrary, the solution that was proposed and agreed upon was to transfer the work, or at least the physical meeting, of the DCICC to the annual World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, which was called a more “appropriate and relevant” platform by one DCICC member. In this way, the DCICC will meet and conduct its work but not sever its ties to the IGF. Instead, members of the DCICC will report about the progress made throughout the year during the Dynamic Coalitions plenary session at the annual global IGF, and the DCICC will also produce a yearly report that it will submit to the IGF Secretariat. The proposal also presents a win-win solution where the IGF community will be informed of the DCICC’s work, but it will be housed within a more supportive environment—collaboration that the IGF Secretariat encourages as well. Moreover, the ITU has been and will continue to be active in involving DCICC members in other climate change-related activities conducted by the ITU to maintain momentum and engagement, such as by inviting members of the DCICC to relevant ITU events.

The final decision on what will become of the DCICC was finalized on 22 September and communicated to the IGF Secretariat. In line with the proposed working modality, the members of the DCICC agreed through consensus that the DCICC will meet annually during the WSIS Forum and will report to IGF about its work when possible. Furthermore, the IGF Secretariat offered its sincere support to the DCICC’s work, which it referred to as “dedicated to a timely and important issue.”

Now that a conclusion about the DCICC’s fate has been reached—and a positive one at that—I am left with an unexpected but welcomed sense of hope, in particular since following the consultation process along instilled a sense of thrill and suspense usually reserved for the conclusion of a movie or television series. I am also filled with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the members of the DCICC who spoke up in defense of its work. Yet, my previously described disappointment in the wider Internet governance community still stings. Although I am not naïve enough to think that I will always agree with what the community does or does not support, we should ultimately practice what we preach, especially since progress is a collaborative, multi-stakeholder effort—one that the successful stewardship transition of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) demonstrated so clearly. As such, that means lending support and voice to initiatives that are not only working to enrich the community and its principles, as well as foster collaboration around a topic that affects all of us, but also help usher in a more sustainable and brighter future.

By Michael J. Oghia, ICT Sustainability Advocate

Michael J. Oghia is a Belgrade-based independent consultant, researcher & editor working within the Internet governance ecosystem on sustainable access, digital rights, media literacy, and development & capacity building. He specifically focuses on the relationship between the Internet, the environment, and sustainability. Twitter: @mikeoghia

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1 gallon of gasoline is equivalent to Charles Christopher  –  Oct 6, 2016 6:35 PM

1 gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 34,000 watts. My Car gets about 25 MPG.

Keeping things simple, 1 trip to the closest mall and back consumes about 1 gallon or 34,000 watts.

I have measured the “internet energy use” of my home office, which includes ISP modem, access point, server, switch, backup servers, commercial UPS and security system. Monthly energy use is about 400,000 watts (about 550 watts per hour). I think it reasonable to assume the average home uses less for this purpose.

So one trip to the mall, saved by an order on Amazon, results in saving the energy used for 2.6 days, for a homeowner that number should be much higher. Of course the post office and UPS still use gas for delivery, but that should be negligible as they are already in the area and their driving is shared across all packages contained within. And we must also factor in my reduced gas usage reduces the need to produce that gas and deliver it to the local gas stations.

The average daily car usage in the US is 40 miles. keeping the numbers simple, for me that is 5 days of internet energy use for every day I work at home (I am self employed and work at home). Those using the internet to save any drive time are creating the same benefit and “planetary” energy reduction.

So I find the argument not compelling as to the internet energy usage being a “pure addition” to world energy usage and ignoring all the marginal savings that are going on because of its existence and growth ….. Not to mention, the less I am in the car that time is spent being more productive and enjoying life.

I only see energy reduction due to the internet, but that includes the changes in behavior that the internet is causing.

Another example, BlockBuster no longer exists and driving to it no longer happens, now its NetFlix and other services like it. The Nest Thermostat uses the internet in various ways to reduce home energy usage. The energy reducing aspects of the internet go on and on, yet climate change discussions fail to note this reality, at least the discussion I find. The internet is doing precisely what is desired by those concerned about climate change, and yet the internet is treated as a problem and that makes no sense to me.

Hi Charles,That was definitely not the message Michael J. Oghia  –  Oct 6, 2016 9:04 PM

Hi Charles,

That was definitely not the message I intended to communicate, and indeed, I echo many of your points throughout. You’re right that the Internet isn’t a problem, but unstoppable data growth could be. Regardless, thank you very much for reading my essay!


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