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Sustainable Internet: Reducing the Environmental Impact

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To be sustainable, the internet needs to assess, mitigate, and live up to its responsibilities for a healthy environment. By understanding the environmental impact, we can point to avenues where progress is possible and identify aspects of our digital infrastructures that come with unintended consequences that are too severe to look the other way.

Cathleen Berger, sustainability steward at Mozilla, gave a keynote on the sustainability of the internet at OOP 2021.

Sustainability is often defined as the interconnection of social connection, economic well-being, and a healthy environment. In trying to better understand how we may approximate the internet’s environmental impact, Berger looked at different research papers that estimate the impact of social media, online advertising, and online streaming, for example:

These studies all provide different levels of accuracy and often come with quite a vast span of estimated greenhouse gas emissions but, if we do add these calculations up, we get to somewhere between 0.5 and 1.9 GtCO2e per year – and this may still be a conservative assumption.

"By no means do I want to brush aside the many, many benefits that the internet provides," Berger said, "but understanding its environmental impact is key to supporting the necessary sustainable transformation of our societies."

Berger called on each stakeholder to do their part to reduce the environmental impact of the internet:

For business, this could mean: making environmental impact assessments a part of your core culture and understanding sustainability as a driver of innovation. This isn’t a far-off future investment, but a regular five-year strategy span, so ride that curve and incorporate risk assessments and innovation principles.

For governments, this means making transparent GHG reporting mandatory and ensuring that public investment only goes to technologies that are net-positive, including for future generations.

And civil society should double down on seeking and providing advice, demanding better, more, and faster when it comes to environmental protection.

For all of us, it has to be clear that this is a commitment, not a one-off, Berger reminded us.

InfoQ interviewed Cathleen Berger about the sustainability of the internet.

InfoQ: How would you define sustainability? How does this definition apply to the internet?

Cathleen Berger: I define sustainability as the interconnection of three elements: social connection, economic well-being, and a healthy environment. From that lens, this pandemic has no doubt reminded us that the internet is often a lifeline for social connection, certainly in times of physical distancing.

It is the primary means of conducting business for those of us who are not on the essential frontlines, allowing many people to work remotely, provide online services, and monetisation. Hence, the internet is a critical vehicle to safeguard economic well-being.

However, to be sustainable, the internet also needs to assess, mitigate, and live up to its responsibilities for a healthy environment – an element of the equation that is too often neglected.

InfoQ: What is the internet’s environmental impact?

Berger: In an ideal world we’d be able to calculate the internet’s impact by looking at infrastructure, the electricity required, devices used to access the web including desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, and other connected devices, as well as available content and other data flows.

Unfortunately, measuring all these elements reliably is not only really complex; there are also divergent opinions on what should be the underlying technical assumptions and boundary conditions. This currently leaves us with high-level statements, such as the European Commission’s "Supporting the Green Transition" paper, that stipulates that the impact of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector amounts to around 2% of global emissions with the potential for this to grow to up to 14% until 2040, if no countermeasures are taken.

Even at 2% that would equal roughly 0.8 GtCO2e emissions per year – which by the way is about the same as Germany’s overall annual emissions in 2019.

InfoQ: What has been done already to reduce the impact of the internet on the environment, and how has that worked out?

Berger: We’ve seen many tech players, like Microsoft, Apple, or Amazon, and of course Mozilla, come out with ambitious pledges for carbon neutrality, net zero emissions, or becoming carbon negative. This is great. And there is still a lot of research and innovation to be unlocked.

To start, environmental impact assessments and reporting are not yet streamlined, and often still lack transparency around methodology and results across all scopes and categories of the GHG Protocol – which makes understanding and comparing progress and best practices difficult. The GHG Protocol is the most commonly used standard for environmental impact assessments that also provides guidance for how to account for different greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide (CO2).

In addition, there tends to be a focus on energy requirements and how to improve the efficiency of servers, data centers, and products in terms of how much power they require. While this is important and has slowed down the increase of emissions associated with the sector, it does not account for its impact on scarce resources, like available land, water, or rare earths materials, and it also doesn’t address concerns around recycling or disposal.

InfoQ: What steps can be taken to further reduce the impact?

Berger: The simple answer is: many. The good news is that while the scale of the challenge may seem absolutely overwhelming, digital technologies provide that same scale to solutions.

We’ll need change on all levels and aspects of our life and work -- which also means everyone is in a position to drive positive change, just start by reflecting on your usual workflow. People are often surprised at what comes up, when they allow themselves to question what’s "always been done that way."

Berger shared the references of her talk in her Twitter thread for a sustainable internet.

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