UK Internet Governance Forum: Internet and Climate Panel

Caspar David FriedrichGiant Mountains (Riesengebirge) / Before sunrise in the mountains

Inspired by Matt Webb’s recent blogging streak, and his liberating rules around letting go of being right, or interesting, or too serious about it all, I’m publishing my rough notes and ideas from the UK IGF, which happened virtually this week.

Myles Allen, a leading climate scientist from the University of Oxford, held a keynote where he talked about the Net Zero challenge and what the tech sector could be doing to address it. His slides are here. Things that resonated with me:

  • A reminder that anthropogenic global warming has reached 1.1°C (±0.2°C) and is increasing at 0.2°C (±0.1°C) per decade.
  • Halting global warming requires net zero CO2emissions and no further warming from other climate forcing agents
  • We have about 40 years to halt the warming if we are to limit warming to ~1.5°C, but only if we hit the brakes now
  • Every additional 0.1°C increases risks
  • Already seeing impacts on unique and threatened systems and extreme weather events
  • There are multiple pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C, but they involve a choice: immediate demand reduction versus large-scale permanent(geological) CO2disposal
  • All scenarios show similar maximum absolute reduction rates so every tonneof CO2dumped in the atmosphere before reductions begin has to be scrubbed out again before 2100
  • Offsetting with tree planting, for example, is only a short term stop gap.

How can the tech sector help reach Net Zero

Allen continued by recommending:

  • Not just by reducing your own emissions. We will keep finding ingenious ways of using fossil carbon: from city-breaks to Bitcoin
  • Decarbonize your energy supplies AND!
  • Decarbonize fossil fuels
  • Ask your suppliers how they intend to reach 100% Carbon Takeback (safe and permanent disposal of 1 tonne of CO2for every tonne generated by the fossil fuels they sell) by 2050.
  • And this is not expensive: Allen said that by asking for 100% Carbon Takeback, the price of 1 liter of petrol would increase about 50 pence.

Big Tech’s Climate Pledges

In the Q&A, I asked Allen how he assessed the recent climate pledges by Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. He responded by saying, “These pledges are realistic, because they are flexible targets. They are increasing ways to reduce emissions.”

He further recommended that companies not just focus on their own operations in mind, but especially in the tech sector with opportunities to innovate, companies should commit to help meet that internationals targets, too. He suggested asking, “How can we achieve Net Zero in our operations and help the rest of the world with its goals?”

Concluding, he believed the tech sector is a relatively easy one to decarbonize. Because the cost of energy is just a small part of the operations. He pointed out that the IPCC doesn’t really cover the tech sector, but it should (Working Group 3). And there are recommendations for more universalized devices, rather than single purpose (see: trends in IoT) that would help computing be more efficient with materials.

David Souter, who helped organize the UK IGF and chaired this session and the panel I was on, also asked if we can bring these discussions to the COP26 in Glasgow (the UN Climate Talks). The digital economy is an area to look at here.

Other resources to look at:

“Reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and decarbonize fossil fuels!”

Myles Allen

Internet and Environment Panel

David Souter then convened Daniel Zeichner (Labour MP and Climate Change APPG), Ugo Vallauri (Restart Project) and me to talk about the internet and environment. I appreciated David’s framing of:

  • Preserve what we value
  • Promote what we want
  • Prevent what we fear

I talked about how the internet should be a global public resource for all, and it must serve our collective liberation and ecological sustainability.

To achieve that, the people and organizations who build and steward the internet must first understand the climate impact of these networked systems, and how to change it.

Threats to a sustainable internet:
* centralization of power in tech
* increased energy consumption and dependency on fossil fuels
* misinformation and climate denial
* lack of understanding among professionals about environmental harm, and meaningful things to do about it
* use of AI/ML in oil extraction

The reality is that a renewable transition will happen. But the tech industry needs to accelerate that transition—speed is justice. We need to make our own commitments, innovate, and account for carbon legacy, build devices for longevity and right to repair. Meanwhile, divest and keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Also, we need to remind ourselves that the internet can also be a positive tool in the climate crisis because it helps us:

  • inform, organize, advocate for change
  • store and share knowledge and experience
  • mitigate emissions by providing alternatives and new, responsible ways of doing things

I mentioned carbon.txt by Chris Adams at the Green Web Foundation as a great example of how to verify claims about carbon neutral energy on websites. It’s also fantastic because it:

  • uses as much existing infrastructure as possible (we already have structures and governance for making the internet work)
  • open source, so it can be built into modern tooling for continuous delivery , or existing platforms and software
  • human readable, as well as machine readable

Measuring and Monitoring

I advocated for transparency around energy consumption of digital services and encouraging sustainable alternatives. We also need to promote divestment and build the field of “sustainability engineering” and “carbon aware” design.

We can learn from greening other sectors, and there is a huge opportunity for governments and civil servants to set the agenda (see the amazing Mariana Mazzucato‘s research on creative bureaucracy)

We must prioritize a sustainable internet and set measureable targets for tech. This can be realized through procurement requirements, make environmental impact assessments a criteria of public funds, obligations to disclose emissions figures using open formats, and developing policy pilots.

Civil society can help by continuing to keep the pressure on. The issues are not around individual choice and responsibility, but about the major polluters who contribute the most emissions. This is where we need to keep pushing for change.

Industry has an opportunity to innovate: more people want sustainable businesses. There’s a competitive advantage to being transparent about emissions, making climate pledges, and delivering alternatives.

Lastly, the tech sector should show up for the climate movement. An opportunity for that is next week, during the next Global Strike on Sept 25 led by Fridays for Future.

Keep linking these issues

I’m grateful to the UK IGF and to David for championing these issues in the agenda. We need to continue that, and make sure the environment is a priority in the global IGF, and that the internet is a topic in the climate talks.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich’s Giant Mountains (Riesengebirge) / Before sunrise in the mountains, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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