A movement to green the web

This week the wonderful Climate Action Tech kicks off its #LetsGreentheWeb campaign.

It invites people to measure the carbon emissions of websites using Wholegrain Digital’s Website Carbon Calculator and share the results online from February 15 – 19, 2021. This is a jumping off point to discuss the internet’s emissions among friends and colleagues and to push for more ambitious climate action in the tech sector.

Results for this website using Wholegrain Digital’s Website Carbon Calculator

As a small contribution to this campaign, I wanted to celebrate the momentum behind greening the web and share reflections for how we might continue organizing and advocating for a sustainable and just internet for all.

It’s still getting hot.

The tough news first. Despite the pandemic’s reductions of travel and other carbon-intensive activities, CO2 levels continue to rise.

The Paris Agreement, backed by almost every country on earth, calls for keeping the global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Yet there is a 1-in-5 chance of the average global temperature exceeding 1.5 °C by 2024. [UN World Meteorological Organization] To avert catastrophic global temperature rise, countries must decrease production of fossil fuels by 6% per year between 2020 and 2030. [UN Production Gap, 2020]. 

We also know now that fossil fuel pollution already causes one in five premature deaths globally, meaning that even before temperature rise, the health impacts of burning oil, gas and coal are much higher than previously thought.

So with the pandemic’s first waves receding, governments around the world began investing in recovery plans worth trillions of dollars. (Carbon Brief offers an excellent tracker of the world’s “green recovery.”)

Joe Biden notably returned the US to the Paris accord just hours after becoming president in January. The European Union set out a European Green Deal, announcing a just transition and reduction of emissions. And many countries, cities, communities and companies declared a climate emergency.

And still, emissions are rebounding.

The complicated role of tech

The internet is the world’s largest machine, and it continues to significantly contribute to these emissions. If we continue business-as-usual, the IT sector will be responsible for 14% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2040 [HBR, 2020].

Thankfully, this issue is getting more attention.

Unfortunately the green recovery plans too often position digital technology as a climate adaption tool while omitting or glossing over its environmental harms. (See Eirini Maliaraki’s brilliant summary “AI and Climate Change: The Promise, the Perils and Pillars for Action” in Branch magazine.)

But the pressure has been mounting for Big Tech to account for its emissions. Spurred by employee organizing, activist campaigns, bad press, and frankly because renewables are the future, Big Tech announced its climate pledges:

And then to meet these targets, Big Tech became the biggest corporate buyers of green energy in the world.


And then closing out 2020, Big Tech added $163bn to market values despite the pandemic and regulatory hearings. The consolidation of profits, influence and infrastructure in the tech sector—and in fact across all sectors—is very real and worrying.

“Who has power over the internet? Seven companies have predominantly controlled the internet and its infrastructure. These seven are in the top ten largest companies in the world.” Mozilla’s Internet Health Report 2020.

“What if that’s not enough?”

“What do you mean, not enough?

“It’s not enough. Your efforts aren’t slowing the damage fast enough. They aren’t creating fixes fast enough. you can see that, because everyone can see it. Things don’t change, we’re still on track for a mass extinction event, we’re in the extinctions already. That’s what I mean by not enough. So what don’t you do something more?”

“We’re doing everything we can think of.”

“But that either means you can’t think of obvious things, or you have thought of them and you won’t do them.”

“Like what?”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry for the Future

Greening Big Tech is not enough

With that size and power, we can’t talk about greening the web without addressing the incumbents.

The momentum in the tech sector is important. Getting these targets from the Big Five is a huge step. Now these companies use their climate commitments to compete in recruiting and retaining employees who increasingly care about their work’s impact on the environment.

However, we shouldn’t limit our imagination of a sustainable internet to simply greening the corporate clouds of five US companies. I dream of the indie web building alternatives and of open source for the public interest thriving outside of Big Tech.

We do need to decarbonize the internet, and the faster the better. But moving to renewables is not enough. Addressing the massive land and water usage in data centers is also not enough (although that should definitely be tracked and accounted for).

In the tech sector, when people talk about greening the web, they usually talk about energy. But really we should be talking about power. 

We need to go beyond tech solutionism and towards intersectional climate justice work. We need to go beyond individual action. We need to shift the power of systemic inequalities, hold major polluters to account, and dismantle the forces—financial, political and cultural—that hold us back from a greener internet and a more sustainable society.

There is a growing body of research about how we can green the internet. However, this research rarely tells us what impactful action internet professionals can take in their daily practice, let alone how to connect their technical decisions with the cause of climate justice.

Tech workers wield their power

We are seeing a pivotal moment in organizing tech workers, and this will certainly be an important and powerful lever of change.

Tech Won’t Drill It mobilized tech workers to say no to using AI for fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

Make Amazon Pay united Amazon warehouse workers, climate activists, and digital rights groups to call for the company to improve to the workplace, job security, sustainable operations and the end to privacy violations and partnerships with the police and immigration authorities.

And Climate Action Tech reached nearly 4,000 members from across the tech sector who are learning from one another and coordinating actions for the workplace and the larger sector, including this #LetsGreentheWeb campaign!

Climate Justice as a Core Competency for Technologists

Climate justice “insists on a shift from a discourse on greenhouse gases and melting ice caps into a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart,” as beautifully described by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and current Chair of the Elders.

This is a discourse shift that the tech sector needs.

As we see growing interest to making sustainability part of internet professionals’ practice, practitioners will need to move from narrow action, like shifting to renewables, to making systematic change. Resource efficiency and optimization are often rewarded in the tech sector, and in the scheme of things, the internet is “easier” infrastructure to decarbonize than say agriculture or transportation.

Our work will not be done even if all of the internet runs on green energy—we need the internet to work within planetary boundaries and to uphold the human rights of every person. This is no doubt a larger effort with many players. But we cannot let the relative ease of decarbonizing the internet prevent us from immediate action nor systemic change. The tech sector must rectify negative impacts and account for what Chris Adams from The Green Web Foundation calls “the social cost of compute.”

1000 More Ideas to Green the Web

As we look to a year with bolder climate action and more people wanted to get involved, we can begin to see ourselves as a movement connected to other movements.

No single person has all the answers nor can achieve a sustainable internet alone. Instead, we need collaborative structures that foster federated leadership and knowledge sharing.

What might this look like?

  • Broaden awareness of collective efforts, building shared understanding and common language across a diverse range of efforts and analyses. Climate Action Tech is a great place to start!
  • Uplift pilots and prototypes that are working in promising ways at the intersection of the internet and the climate crisis.
  • Deepen understanding of the “twin transitions” of sustainable and digital economies and their anticipated harms and opportunities.
  • Identify assets that our groups bring to the table and gaps for our work to be more effective together.
  • Explore advocacy narratives that position climate justice more prominently in digital agendas and conversely incorporates digital rights and open technology in climate agendas.
  • Define and map paths to influence funding, legislation and technical innovation.
  • Catalyze new and deeper collaboration and broader more integrated strategy.

If you’re interested in thinking through more ideas, join the #LetsGreentheWeb conversation on Twitter and join the virtual session at Mozfest, “Firefox Eco-Mode and 1000 More Ideas for a Sustainable Internet” on March 16.

Image: Nervous system, from Camillo Golgi’s Sulla fina anatomia degli organi centrali del sistema nervoso (1885)

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