Announcing the Green Web Fellowship programme
We’re over the moon to share news with you about a new project made possible by a grant from the Internet Society Foundation. We’re starting our first funded Green Web Fellowship program, exploring the role climate justice plays in being a responsible technologist.
First, a little background
The Green Web Foundation has been working on tracking and accelerating the transition of the internet away from fossil fuels since the late 2000s. We have done this because while green energy might feel like a warm, feel-good thing, it’s important to remember that this good feeling comes from relief.
This relief often comes from knowing that we’re moving away from a deeply destructive default, to a more advanced humane way to power critical infrastructure our society relies on.
For us, moving away from fossil fuels is a justice issue – once you understand just how much structural violence and avoidable harm is caused by running so much digital infrastructure on fossil fuels, it’s difficult to see it any other way.
It’s about power as well as energy in tech
To understand why we still run so much of the internet on fossil fuels, we need to understand the political and economic systems we’re in, and when you look into this you very quickly realise that to speed up a transition, being able to talk about power is just as important as talking about energy.
So, over the next twelve months, we will be announcing our first cohort of 5 Green Web Fellows, working in the open to build a freely licensed syllabus to incorporate ideas of climate justice into the work of internet professionals.
There is no one way to learn about these topics, and there’s an incredible amount of prior work to learn from and build upon, so we’ll be collaborating with fellows across several disciplines as well as inviting communities and tech professionals to adapt the resources to their context.
We’ll be learning by doing as we work, and we’ll be using this research question to guide us:
How do we advance climate justice in the practice of Internet professionals in a plausible, desirable, accessible, and coherent way?
Let’s break these terms down.
Plausible, desirable, accessible, and coherent
We say plausible, because in conversations we’ve had with many organisations, while they say they agree with the ideals and goals of climate justice, it’s not obvious to them where to start, or even see how to fit this into their work.
We say desirable, because we think that just like there are demonstrable qualities you see exhibited by people in psychologically safe, inclusive and supportive teams, and we think the same applies for an awareness of climate justice, and we intend to articulate them.
We say accessible, because to be honest, climate as a concept can be incredibly daunting, and climate justice especially so. We intend to work on exercises, activities and content to make it easier to take your first steps into this field, and see how it relates to working online.
And finally, we say coherent, because the changes we need now are rapid, far reaching and unprecedented. We can’t only talk about having green servers without also talking about what they’re being used for — especially if we use them to accelerate climate denial, or help people drill for more fossil fuels. We’ll be exploring what levers there are to act on the dissonance we see when this happens.
Building climate as a key competency for technologists
If you want to build inclusive, accessible, thoughtful digital services, there are skills and competencies you can develop to do so, and we feel the same way about climate.
Everything we publish will be permissively licensed, and we are actively looking for digital teams to work with, as we build prototypes of the learning materials and activities, and refine them through use in the real world. If this sounds interesting to you, please do drop us a line.
How to follow along as we build a syllabus in the open
We’ll start introducing our five fellows at the end of this month and sharing what we learn in the open in weekly posts over the next twelve months. In the meantime, if you’re curious you might be interested in visiting our funding garden, to see our original application.
Finally, thank you again to the Internet Society Foundation for making this possible! We’re also looking forward to learning from the other grantees, and we encourage you to check out the foundation’s research program focusing on greening the internet, a trustworthy internet, the internet economy and decolonizing the internet.
Image Credit: Photograph by Dennis Schroeder – Nipton, CA – Contracted workers clean Heliostats at the Ivanpah Solar Project, owned by NRG Energy, Bright Source Energy, Bechtel and Google
A way to think about the environmental impact of streaming services like Netflix
Because we’ve been talking about sustainability and the internet for while, every so often, we get people asking us about the environmental impact of streaming services like Netflix and so on. Sometimes, these end up as interviews, and this week I ended up being interviewed on a podcast show run by a well known national newspaper in the UK, The Daily Mail. There isn’t much time to talk on radio shows, so in this post, I’ve expanded on the key points I wanted to get across.
The short version
Yes, there is an environmental cost to streaming videos over services like Netflix, because a lot of the electricity that powers the internet comes from fossil fuels. This can and should change. However the majority of the environmental impact comes from both the production (i.e. filming and so on) of the content, and the production of the devices you might view it on.
Especially in the middle of a pandemic, you needn’t to feel guilty about the carbon footprint of streaming videos, especially compared to other activities we do every day.
However, if you want some constructive steps to follow, I’ve outlined a few in this post, and the reasoning behind them. They start fairly tactical, then end up much wider and systemic. If you’re interested in hearing the podcast interview you can find it at this link to the Mail Plus podcast by Andrew Pierce, at the 16:18 mark (warning, this post will likely be far more coherent…).
The fuller version
These are written for someone who does not build digital services, and isn’t a techie, but has heard a few news stories about the carbon footprint of their Netflix habit, and wondering what to do. If there’s interest in going further down the rabbit hole, we can in future posts. Off we go…
Learn to take a lifecycle view of any activity
When we talk about the environmental impact of any activity, from watching a film over the internet, or even making an device to watch it on, it’s helpful to know that there will be ‘hotspots’ where a greater share of the emissions will take place compared to others. As long as most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, where you see lots of energy being used, there will often be lots of carbon emissions. If you were to sketch a chart over environmental impact of watching a film on an iPad, it might look a bit like this sketch:
Making an iPad, versus using an iPad
As an example, making consumer electronics like mobile phones or tablets is extremely energy intensive, but these days, they’re pretty energy efficient to use, and tend not to need very much energy to run. It often takes energy to break up electronics and reclaim the useful minerals again.
So sure, while there would be some savings in energy from not watching a film on an iPad, by the time you’ve bought the tablet, most of the energy has already been used in making the device for you. If you want to learn more, the Restart project is a great place to start.
In the middle of a pandemic, it’s likely a pretty good deal to get the enjoyment that you do from watching a show you love for an hour, for the cost of not very much energy, especially if it’s only using a small amount of energy to do so.
Making a film, versus watching a film
You can also see this pattern if we zoom out further, to look at the lifecycle of making the show that we want to watch, compared to the actual watching of the film.
This is backed up by look at Netflix’s own recent environmental report for 2020 – around half of their own carbon footprint comes from the actual production of the shows, compared to around 5% for the running of the infrastructure to serve them over the internet.
But just like the iPad example, worrying about the streaming part is worrying about the least energy intensive part of the entire process, even if in isolation, it adds up to a large number.
This is why it’s important to think about the lifecycle view – just because one part is a part you are able to control directly and quickly, it doesn’t mean that it’s an effective place to concentrate your efforts. If you want to learn more, the carbon brief offers way more detail on this subject.
It’s worth knowing that reducing the emissions from production is something the industry is working on. Look up Albert, to find out more about reducing the emissions of making films, and DIMPACT for understanding the emissions from streaming in more detail.
Hold onto your kit for longer
Once you have a life cycle view of any activity, and you know where the whole impact is, then you’re able to think more laterally about what options you have to make the act of watching films online greener.
If we knew that most of the environmental impact came from the making of the devices we use, then it would make sense to do what we can to reduce the need to do all that expensive manufacturing of them in the first place.
For most of us, this translates into doing what we can to extend the useful life of existing devices. Or if we need a new device, buying one that’s already had one useful life.
This is getting easier – in addition to the usual market places like eBay, Gumtree, Shpock and so on, there are sites like Backmarket that specialise in pre-owned kit now. Also many larger companies sell refurbished equipment too.
If you are looking at extending the life of electronics you already have, start at iFixit.
Think about who you are buying from
Some companies are doing better than others, when it comes to being transparent and responsible. But even inside the companies that are lagging behind, there are often people working hard to make the case to be more active on the climate impact of what they do.
Who are you buy streaming services from?
While it’s increasingly difficult to do so given their sheer size, if you’re user of a streaming service, doing some research, and asking them about their policies helps demonstrate that there are people paying attention.
Taking this further, switching away from a service, and being clear why you switched helps people inside argue for change. This information is surprisingly hard to find, but Greenpeace’s clicking clean reports are a decent way into the subject.
Who are you buying energy and internet access from?
Closer to home, if you know that streaming shows uses electricity, then one way to make streaming greener is to make sure that as much green energy is being used in the process.
Buying green energy for your home is fairly obvious next step, but an increasing number of internet service providers you buy your connection from are also making public commitments to power their networks with green energy. Vodafone is one such example in Europe, but there are others too.
If you want measurable impact without changing anything else at all, learn to change when you watch
While it it isn’t usually exposed to us directly, the carbon footprint of electricity on most national grids is constantly changing. This is because at different times of day, we generate electricity from different sources.
How changing the time of use can help
When the sun is high in the sky, a greater share of power will come from solar panels, so streaming a show when there’s so much abundant green energy on the grid will often mean that doing so is slightly greener.
Conversely, in the evening right after people come home from work, it’s the other way around. Even if there’s plenty of wind blowing, there’s so much demand for energy that a lot of the time fossil gas generators will come online to keep up with demand. This means that the energy on the grid will be slighty dirtier.
Matching use to supply
This might be a bit hard to visualise, but the idea of matching the use of energy to when the grid is green is increasingly common.
Google now coordinate the workloads in their datacentres to take advantage of these changes. It’s greener, but is also saves them a shed load of money. On a more domestic level, the baking forecast applies the same ideas matching when to use energy baking if you have an electric oven, for the greenest possible delicious baked goods.
Back to the world of streaming, our very own Lu Ye, the designer on the green web browser extension explored this in detail for her masters thesis, and her onlign OS project. You can read more in her piece in Branch magazine about designing for carbon aware digital experiences.
Act like part of society, not just a consumer
Finally, it’s really important to remember that some problems aren’t ones you can solve through individual actions alone, and need a more systemic approach. You often need this to create a more level playing field for those working hard to offer greener ways to use digital services.
Why we need to change the rules, not just our behaviour
You currently pay a premium for easy to repair devices like the Fairphone over a handset with similar size screen and camera. Try comparing the price of a Fairphone for example with the specs of most phones on a phone comparison site, and you’ll see what I mean.
And even though renewable energy like solar is now the cheapest form of new energy generation to install in the world, green energy is often marketed as a more expensive option than the regular grey/brown default forms of generation.
In both of these cases, this is because in the default scenario, like using regular energy or a non-fair electronics, the full costs are being shifted from the polluter onto other people instead.
This makes the destructive default look like the better option to go for in the short term, largely because we can’t see who is paying the full costs (spoiler: it’s almost always us in the long term).
It’s very difficult to see meaningful change happen without us changing the way we share the costs that come with using digital services – this means engaging as a citizen as well as a consumer.
Why we can’t change the rules without changing our behaviour
When systemic change is mentioned in the context of climate, it’s often used as a way to avoid talking about the need to move on from all the destructive defaults that make up society.
However It’s often more helpful to think of systemic change and individual action as two sides of the same coin: visible actions we take as individuals can create the norms that make it possible for policy makers to make laws that support wider adoption of climate friendly behaviour.
This makes it easier to take more actions as individuals which can help change norms, which then make further policy action, and so on.
There are a load of organisations you might look up, but personally I’m a fan of 350.org if you are outside of the UK, and if you’re in the UK, climate charity Possible, and the work that mysociety is doing to make it easier to be an active citizen on climate issues, with their work on the climate assemblies, and their work to make all the climate plans from the local governments in the UK easily findable and searchable.
Introducing the Green Web Foundation Partner API
For the last ten years we’ve been building and maintaining a database of which websites on the internet run on green energy, and when they switched, then making this data freely available to all. With some help from the nice folks at SIDN, we’ve built a new API, to allow partners to programmatically update this information about their digital infrastructure, and how it’s powered. Read on for more details, and how to use it.
We’ve offered a read API for a few years now at the Green Web Foundation. You use it by passing in a website address, and and it returns a green / grey result. It’s what we use under the hood when you try run a check on our main website.
Why we exposed an API – so others offer green website checks too
We exposed this as an API for a number of reasons. We used it ourselves in this green check as mentioned above, but it was also a good way for the browser extensions we offer to incorporate the same checking features, and ti turned out to be a pretty handy for tools like website carbon, and ecograder as well, amongst others.
When an API gets a bit too popular for comfort
We also learned that over time, the data we had been offering over the API ended up being used for academic research, and particularly in 2020, we started seeing some extremely heavy spikes in use of the API, as researchers ran checks against increasingly large lists of websites.
Sending millions of requests over the wire to requesting checks against a list of websites, one website at a time isn’t a very efficient way to do these checks, so earlier in February we released datasets.thegreenwebfoundation.org.
This offers a way for folks to query the same data we make available over the API, but express queries using a well known, battled tested language, SQL, and download the results of any query in as either JSON or in CSV form.
Hopefully this will help our poor API servers being hammered by researchers so much 🙂
A new way to write to the Green Web Foundation Database
In addition to having some new ways to query and download data, there’s now a new, API for providers to programmatically edit information instead of having to manually sign into an admin website to register new networks, IP addresses and so on.
At present, whenever a hosting provider moves to a new datacentre, or they register new IP addresses, they also need to update the green web foundation website for the changes to be reflected in search results. If you’re a customer of a given hosting provider, and you’re seeing a sad face instead of a happy green one, this is frequently the reason – the provider often hasn’t got round to updating the records yet.
With the new API , we’ve made it easier to stay up to date, and we now have a RESTful API, that exposes a number of endpoints to allow programatica updates.
Using Open API to make it easier to integrate with new services
We’ve based the new API around the Open API specification – which means we’re able to expose a nice new interactive API page like the one in the screenshot below, listing all the possible endpoints we make available:
There are some other nice benefits too though – if you’re signed into the admin site, you can also try out the API, to see what kind of responses you get back, when prototyping a new service that works with the data. Below is a screenshot showing the an example of the one of the new API features, some inline documentation, and examples of what kind of data is expected, along with the responses to expect when you have made a successful request.
Releasing an API is one thing, but you always learn new things as you see it being used, and we expect that we’ll need to make various changes as we see people using it more.
If you’re interested in trying it out the new partner api, the APi pages are visible at https://admin.thegreenwebfoundation.org/api-docs/.
Eating our own dogfood
To demonstrate using this new richer functionality, we’ve now added a ‘batch’ feature to our old API page – rather than needing to check pages individually, you can now upload a CSV file listing the domains you want checked, and you’ll get back a CSV file listing the results for each one. You can try it on our old page – https://api.thegreenwebfoundation.org/
Tracking progress on greening the web
This week, is #letsgreentheweb week – part of a campaign organised by ClimateAction.tech, to raise awareness about environmental impact of digital services we rely on, and constructively engage with the subject. Read on to learn more about the campaign, and the new dataset browser we’re released to support it.
So, if you’re on this blog, you’ve probably figured out that the internet runs on electricity, and yes, that electricity has to come from somewhere. That somewhere, more often than not tends to be fossil fuels. Given the fact that we’re in a climate emergency, burning fossil fuels to run our digital infrastructure really is something we need to leave in the 20th century, and move away from.
However, even if you run your own servers on green power, there’s still the rest of the internet you need to be aware of when using digital services. If you want to tread more lightly there, then one thing that can help is to design like you’re aware of the carbon being burned to use it.
How to check that a website has been designed with this in mind
One the easiest ways to do this, and to communicate why this might be important is to try checking a site you like using the natty website carbon service provided by the nice folks at Wholegrain Digital.
Website carbon works by looking at the website you’ve entered, and running some calculations on the page size, and who it’s served with to give an estimate of carbon emissions from loading the page.
Under the hood, it uses the google page speed API, and every domain is checked against our database, to work out the figures you see.
What to do next
Website carbon lends itself well to sharing results, but once you have figures, what next?
We’ve listed a few below:
If you’re just getting started, there’s now some useful guidance on the actions section of the ClimateAction.tech website.
If you have 25 minutes spare, and you’re a developer, Building a Greener Web fits as much information as we could about the links between web performance and climate impact – we delivered the talk in the FOSDEM web performance room, and you can visit our special page for the full video, the slides with references, and a searchable transcript of the video.
If you want to stay up date, our we share links, analysis, and advice in our own newsletter, Greening Digital. It’s in the footer of every page, but you can also follow our sign up link too.
If you’re going to take part in a campaign about greening the web, it’s useful to know how we’re collectively, in working towards a greener web.
And earlier, we mentioned about how we publish datasets regularly about the state of the green web.
Today, we released new dataset browser, to make the underlying data that website carbon used easier to browse, run analyses on and build on top of. We used the fantastic datasette project to publish this information – so in addition to having browsable dataset, you can also easily download subsets of the data. You can do this in CSV form, or JSON to carry out further analysis or building your own tools with it.
We’re looking to release more datasets in the coming months, and build a new version of our directory – if you build digital services, we want to make it easier to understand your own digital supply chain, and what steps you can take to make it more climate friendly.
Working with the Green Web Foundation
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes greening the web, it might be worth taking a look how we can help. We can offer audits, training, and all of our tools and software we make available with permissive licenses, and for free.
If you’re already working to build a greener web, then consider partnering up, so the ways you an help can be listed in our directory.
We currently cover hosting, but in the coming months, we’ll be expanding to list services up and down the stack.
Doing so is entirely free – but if you want to support our work, consider partnering up, so we can keep publishing the data, tools and other materials to help on the mission to sustainable internet for all.
Panel notes – Digital and Green Transition: Will Artificial Intelligence foster or hamper the Green New Deal?
As we’ve said before in an earlier post about internet governance, open source and open data are useful levers for change. But so is policy, and as an NGO based in Europe, it makes sense to engage with lawmakers as well as fellow nerds.
This is especially the case when bodies like the European Commission – the body that wields a colossal amount of resources in Europe has listed key priorities for the upcoming years as a Europe fit for the Digital Age and The Green New Deal.
For context, the last comparable programme from the European Commission, Horizon 2020, had a budget of around 80 billion Euros. 80 billion euros, spent wisely, is a massive lever for change, and every sign points to even larger amounts being spent this time round.
So, when the Greens/European Free Alliance, the 5th largest part in European Parliament, asked us to join a panel of experts, and MEPs to talk tech and climate, we were happy to join them.
About the event
We covered a lot of ground in an event titled “Digital and Green Transition: Will Artificial Intelligence foster or hamper the Green New Deal?” – we touched on climate justice, policy design, the carbon footprint of AI, along with who really benefits from the Green New Deal, and we learned a lot along the way.
The event was recorded and will be online soon (we’ll add the link when it’s up), but in the meantime, here are our key takeaway points from the panel discussion. For each point, we’ll just link to resources we’ve found useful in our own research, or that were mentioned during the session.
The environmental impact of technology is poorly understood, and access to data is one reason
Generally speaking, when we use digital services, it’s difficult to understand the actual environmental consequences of us using them.
One of the more well known reports worth looking over is the Shift Project’s report from 2019. It introduces the issues, even if some of the numbers are contentious – Lean ICT: Towards digital sobriety.
If you want to look at the carbon emissions from datacentres, where AI ‘happens’, it’s useful to see it compared to other sectors. The analysis from the International Energy Agency’s report is worth a look. Data Centres and Data Transmission Networks.
Some of the most accessible accurate, and well written analysis about the environmental impact of technology we’ve come across comes from Maddie Stone. Her piece summarising recent research from around this time last year is a good example.
If you’re not familair with the Francophone sustainable tech ‘scene’, then Gauthier Roussilhe’s recent comparison of Anglo-saxon digital sustainability discourse and the French equivalent is essential reading.
While we didn’t touch on it that much during the discussion, the impact of technology in terms of how it is used is really important. Greenpeace’s report, Oil in the Cloud gives a good background on the issues.
Increasingly there are open source projects that make it easier to understand the environmental impact of technology in a way we can act upon. CodeCarbon and MLCO2 are such examples. In the Green Web Foundation, we maintain tools to build an awareness of the social cost of compute into infrastructure too, with our grid intensity plugins, and we contribute to other open source projects with similar goals like Scaphandre, and Sitespeed.
AI and Tech are not special – just relatively new
Indeed given how large and powerful the main players have become, and how quickly it’s happened, it’s tempting to see them as unique, special entities. We think that this is a mistake.
The sustainable digital infrastructure alliance’s report , The Utility of the Future, provides lots of extremely useful analysis on the similarities between the power sector, and the tech sector, as well as some sound recommendations.
And last year, to help get this message across we helped manage the production of Branch, an online magazine written by and for people who dream of a sustainable and just internet.
One of the highlights was a piece by Eirini Maliaraki at the Turing Institute, about Climate and AI. It’s a good summary, and it also explores the necessity of understanding climate justice, as well as just the environmental impact of tech and AI – AI and Climate Change: The Promise, the Perils and Pillars for Action.
If you are thinking about how society deals with the needs of large, well resourced, well connected incumbent players versus the needs of everyone else, then understanding what kinds of policy patterns have worked, and not worked is valuable. There’s a lot in the Policy Design Principles that can help too – a set of tools to help evaluate if a policy creates the incentives you want, and who you’re favouring with them.
When we talk about green tech, it’s easy to find discussions about green power confusing, and carbon neutrality confusing.
If you see stories about large tech companies hoarding green power for themselves, and leaving everyone else to use electricity coming from fossil fuels, it’s important to understand what’s really happening. Electricity Map’s work, and in particular this talk by Trevor Hinkle explains it in the most accessible, but also accurate way we’ve found.
We need to talk about power as well as energy
Finally, if there was one key theme through the whole discussion, it was that while we might first think about energy when it greening tech and AI, we really need to be talking about power, and who benefits from the decisions being made.
If we look outside the focus on AI, and on the Green New Deal we can see how in Europe an eye watering amount of money has already been committed to a strategy based around shifting from a fossil economy, to a hydrogen economy. At first you might think “Great! fewer fossil fuels is good, right”?
Look a bit closer, and you’ll see how the path chosen turns out to be really good for protecting otherwise stranded assets from fossil fuel companies – the same companies who have been lobbying hard to slow meaningful climate action for the last 40 years. This snippet from an interview with analyst Gniewomir Flis, is illustrative.
Likewise when we talk about the environmental impact of digital, it’s important to be aware who benefits from discussions around AI being a tool for decarbonisation.
Diverse ecosystems are healthy ecosystems
One reason we emissions from the tech sector has stayed level is that the industry has consolidated around a handful of hyperscale players.
These same hyperscale players have also been able to switch to green power faster, because they have better access to capital to build their own solar and wind farms. Their size also means that they are more able to shape policy to favour them, and this post here outlines the experience of being someone from a small NGO, in earlier work to inform strategies for a greener tech industry in Europe.
It’s important to be aware of this, because when we think of some of the key players shaping the narrative around a greener world through AI, they’re also the same companies who have a track record of firing researchers who talk critically about the environmental impacts of their services, like Timnit Gebru at Google.
Or firing tech workers who push their company to take bolder steps on both climate, and on equity, like Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa at Amazon.
If you want to look into this more, there’s already good work from the other panelists. Dr Theodora’ Dryer’s work on the AI Now report from 2019 is worth a look in this field, and the Feike Janse’s work at the Data Justice Lab.
So, that was our first panel, and this was our first post in this format.
If these resources were useful, or you’re looking to learn more in the subject, there’s a few ways to hear more from us. You can join our mailing list at the link in our footer or drop us a line directly.
Starting a funding garden
At the Green Web Foundation, we’re funded by a combination of supporters through out partnership program, and grant funding for specific projects.
These kind of grant funding has paid for us to open source the platform and the datasets from the green web foundation, build a degree of environmental intelligence into existing tools, and pay for some of our staff to work.
We’re looking for more funding opportunities like this,
If you’ve ever written a funding application, the question of what does a successful funding application look like? will be close to your mind. There’s also often a lot of work
Well, it’s been close to ours as we work on them, at least/
So, if we’ve been working open previously, how can we make our search for a way to keep the lights on open too?
Enter the funding garden
We’re trying something new in the coming months. Funding applications seem to work best if they’re given time to grow and mature, so we’ve set up a what we’re referring to as a funding garden, where we’ll list the funding applications we’ve seen, and are applying for, and why we think what we do is a good fit for them.
We’re sharing this for a few reasons, but we think it will help with:
- getting more feedback, more quickly – we want to be able to make it easy to get feedback from potential funders or collaborators.
- help us find collaborators – we’re a tiny org, with tiny resources. We need to partner up to have impact, and we think doing this makes it easier to make joint applications, or support fellow travellers with similar goals.
- help tell our story – we often need to tell a version of our story and explain our theory of change in each application. We think making the way we talk about these publicly visible will help us tighten it up.
- discovering new opportunities – finally we often rely on the help of volunteers. Sharing how we work and where we are looking might help us discover opportunities we didn’t know about, and if we’re not a good fit one, help others on a similar journey find something for them.
Of course, this might not work either. We won’t know if we don’t try though.
Like many new gardens, it’s not much to start with, but we hope it’ll grow over time into something good.
If you’re up working with us, or fancy helping tend to the garden, do please drop us a line at [email protected].
Notes for Greening Internet governance at EURODig
AT the Green Web Foundation, we’ve been building open source software and publishing open data, to help with working towards a more sustainable web, but there are other levers for change too. Here’s Chris Adams, with our contribution to EURODig – the European Dialogue on Internet Governance, and the panel Towards A Sustainable Governance of the Internet:
On the session Greening Internet governance – Environmental sustainability and digital transformation, we each have an opening statement before we move to a panel discussion exploring the themes listed in the wiki.
I’ve listed my one here, largely for people who couldn’t make it, but also in case I forget anything in the two and half minutes I have available.:
I’m an organiser of climateAction.tech, and one of the directors of the green web foundation. I’m going to use my time to outline three things I think are necessary for a sustainable internet. I’m also going to mention energy a lot because the main driver around climate change when we talk about the internet is from burning fossil fuels to generate energy for both the running of the internet, and creating the hardware we use to access the internet. Anyway on with the three things I’d want you to take away from this session:
1) It should be trivial to trust that infrastructure is using green energy. It’s worth investing time in how we can do this, as have lots of the pieces of the puzzle for doing so already. For example we use lots of these pieces (like DNS and HTTPS) to trust that a domain name points to a given set of servers, that are running in a specific place in the world already, and this idea can be applied when we talk how we power digital infrastructure too.
In the energy world, it’s worth knowing that we already issue certificates for guaranteeing the energy came from renewable sources in the energy sector. There are lots of parallels between relying on certificates and cryptography, and a well established governance process to trust that websites are running on the infrastructure we think it’s running on, and between relying on certificates, and governance to trust that infrastructure is generating green power.
I don’t have time to go into the complexities of this, but this would be a good start towards understanding the link between the digital world, and the physical world powering it.
2) I think it’s a mistake to to shift the responsibility onto end users for the carbon footprint of using the internet.
Right now, specialists with intimate knowledge of how the internet is built have a hard time calculating the environmental impact of digital activities online. As such, I think it’s unrealistic to expect end most users to know and act on this – and shifting the burden to end users echoes how we often miss the systemic factors when we talk about sustainability, in general.
Also, digital services often replace more much more carbon intensive activity, like having a video call to replace flying to a conference.
From a governance point of view, it’s easier to spend time and money incentivising a small number of actors upstream, like people who make digital services, to work to accelerate a shift to green, decarbonised grid.
This will be easier than teaching hundreds of millions of end users downstream about changing their browsing habits to take into account the complexities of the internet.
3) Finally, I think we need to use public procurement as a lever in many cases, and there needs to be to policy actively not buy from providers who are still invested in fossil fuels, and not taking steps to green their infrastructure.
We can look to success stories in web accessibility movement for inspiration here.
Drawing clear lines in the sand around the WCAG meant that the people who build digital services had to take accessibility seriously if they wanted that nice fat public sector contract.
It stopped being a nice to have and become something non-negotiable.
This meant that government services which should be available to everyone were newly accessible to millions, and it helped grow the field of inclusive design.
In the same way that a habitable planet is more than just a nice to have, I think an internet running from green power, and and made from devices that were manufactured using green power, is more than a nice to have. And using policy around how public money is spent to speed this along is an important lever we should be using.
At the Green Web Foundation, we use open source software and open datasets to to help people understand how the digital infrastructure they use is powered, and speed a transition to a green internet.
Searching the green web with Searx
We all search the web. And as we become more aware about our climate changing, we want to use greener products and services too. But how can you find them? We recently finished a project with the open source privacy protecting search engine Searx, to turn it into a green open source privacy protecting search engine, that you can use today. Read on for more.
As we said before, we all search the web to find stuff we need, and a few years back we built a set of browser extensions that will highlight results on website that run on green energy when you search on Google, or Bing.
The thing is, you need to have a browser extension installed on your machine, our extensions have no control over how information about what you search for is used by the search engine providers. And after being followed around by the same retargeting ads for weeks, you might want to use a more privacy protecting search engine instead sometimes.
(By the way if you’re curious about how we use data, check out our privacy statement – we’ve tried to make it as short, and clear as possible)
In cases like this, you might want to use Searx, an open source, privacy protecting search engine. It works by taking a search query you have and checking it against a range of different search engines, before providing the results in a unified view.
We’ve set up an instance of Searx on the Green Web Foundation servers for you to try out now:
This instance is special though. Lets say you want to do a search, for hand sanitizer – you can see the results as normal from query, without sharing any information about yourself:
Now what if I wanted to see results, but only from sites that run on green energy? I can set this in the preferences now, by making sure a new option, only show green hosted results is set:
Setting this will then update my results with a filtered view, only showing results from providers who are using green powered infrastructure. We’ve chosen to search hand sanitizer because well everyone is right now, but if you were looking for sustainability advice, this would be a pretty good way to see who’s taking the subject seriously, and who isn’t.
How we do this
Under the hood, this works because we’ve built a new plugin for Searx, that takes use a local copy of the open dataset we publish about the web listing which sites are green, and which ones are not.
And performs checks against every search result returned by all the search providers Searx runs your query against, to only show ones using green infrastructure.
Privacy first, with open data
By performing checks against this local database instead of the The Green Web Foundations Greencheck API service, no information about which sites are being searched, or which results are coming back is sent to the Green Web Foundaton servers. Also, because checking against a local database is much faster than making requests over the internet, you end up with a much zippier user experience. Neat!
How we do this
You can see the code in our fork of Searx on github with the plugin, and we’ve been working with Searx to get it merged in for a future release – we’re working in the open, so you can follow progress along in this pull request on github.
Until then, you can try out a greener, privacy protecting searches at https://searx.thegreenwebfoundation.org, or follow the instructions on our github repo, run searx on your own servers.
Stay safe, and stay green fellow web fans!
This work would not have been possible without support from NLNet. If you want to work on building a more open, sustainable, privacy protecting internet, they are great folks to talk to.
How to build a more sustainable web with a little help from sitespeed.io
For the last few weeks, we’ve been working on a project with the folks who build sitespeed.io, a popular open source web performance tool. We’ve given it the ability to work out the carbon footprint of any website, and provide tailored guidance to measurably make any website greener. Interested? Read on for more.
We know the internet is a wonderful thing. But it’s also the world’s biggest machine, and large parts of it run on fossil fuels. That’s a problem when we’re in a climate emergency.
Now, being in a climate emergency isn’t great, but least the good news is that we’re finally starting to act. So far, 1390 local governments in 27 countries, representing 818 million people have declared climate emergencies in their parts of the world, partly as a response to millions of children striking every Friday, calling for action from adults.
And each week, Greta and Co. have been telling us to, “listen to the science“.
If you do listen to the scientists, you’ll find we need to make rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to how we live and work to avoid the worst impacts of a changing climate.
And although it still needs be happening much faster than it right now, we’re finally seeing actual plans of how to make these changes – see this list of reports and action plans published for the UK already from these same places.
When you look at them, it’s clear we really do have rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented, changes ahead of us. And if we’re going to have an internet in the future, we’ll need it to be a sustainable and green one.
We also know that getting there will take shifts in mindset. After all, we are what we do repeatedly.
So, if we want to keep building websites, we’ll need to find a way to make building sustainable sites a habit.
And if we want to do that, it’s worth seeing what we can learn by looking at how people have created habits out of regularly making fast, accessible sites.
With this in mind, we’ve built a tool for any web designer to make sustainable design part of what they do on every project.
Building a more sustainable web with sitespeed.io
As the cute cats, say:
sitespeed.io is a set of open source tools, that make it easy to measure and monitor the performance of a website.
When you use sitespeed.io, (there’s some helpful videos on their website to show how to run it), and point it at a website, it drives a web browser like Chrome or Firefox, to analyse a page, to track how long it takes to load, how accessible it is, and so on.
It then serves up some tailored advice for making a website work better. Here’s an example for the green web foundation.
Now, we know that the sending data over the internet uses electricity, which has a carbon footprint, even if the original server serving it is in a green datacenter, because the rest of the internet isn’t green yet.
Until we have an entirely green internet, it means that website performance budgets, where you explicitly say a website needs to be below a certain size, or always load inside a set time, can work a bit like carbon budgets. That is we can use them to influence the emissions caused when we use the web.
This is the key idea is behind the new sustainable web plugin.
Let’s look at the new shiny sitespeed docs for it, with the awesome Greta cat – (yes, of course there are stickers.)
Remember, the W3C explicitly say that building a sustainable web is one of the principles that make up an ethical web.
Inspired by this, we’ve extended sitespeed with a load of metrics, that you’ll find under the “Sustainable Web” tab, as displayed below:
In this tab, you’ll see all the requests that were made to load a webpage, and along with the carbon footprint associated with each one. It also provides a handy breakdown of where the carbon footprint comes from in a webpage, so you know where to optimise first.
If this is harder to visualise, you can have a look at a sample check we ran against our own site to see what we need to do to make it better.
This kind of insight about how pages and services work help us answer some other useful questions.
Let’s try some out.
Recent peer reviewed papers estimate that up to half the data sent over the wire, and therefore half the carbon footprint for displaying webpages ends up coming from advertising now.
This means if you’re using a free app, and you pay for bandwidth, you’ll often end up paying more in bandwidth from ads on an app than paying for it outright.
Would it be greener and cheaper for your users just to buy your app, instead of paying for it through the data from advertising?
Now you can start making decisions based on actual data!
If it’s not ads, where is the impact on my page coming from? Is it down to those fonts I added once, and forgot about?
Now we can see! Here’s an example of running sitespeed, and in the analysis, we can see a page breakdown of where the impact comes from.
With the content type breakdown, you can have a more informed discussions about how we build greener digital services. Sure that background video they often look cool. But on a recent project, we when we compared the footprint from downloading this video thousands of times to the carbon footprint from the entire team commuting to work over the length of a project, the video ended up having the bigger footprint 🤯
How does this all work?
As mentioned before, because we use can sitespeed to run all kinds of analysis on pages, we can see how much data is sent from all the different servers that a browser requests info from. We can also check those servers against the Green Web Foundation Greencheck API to see if they run on green power.
Once we know how much data is being sent, we can work out how much energy is being used, by referring to the 1byte model as published by the Shift Project earlier last year.
We then use some more figures from the Shift Project, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) to work out the carbon emissions from generating that energy needed to power all the infrastructure to make accessing the site possible. Where we know green power is used, we adjust the numbers accordingly.
Keeping up with the science
The thing about science is that’s it’s continually being updated, and when we have new data, it’s good to use it.
So, we’re developing the model we use, co2.js, in the open on github, and working with sustainability specialists at Green Gumption and the IEA to make sure we use the latest peer reviewed data when it’s available.
When we have that, we’ll incorporate the new findings into the new open source co2 module we’ve published onto npm, the world’s largest package manager.
Yes, pull requests are very welcome, and we’re actively looking for contributors. In fact…
Using this in your own tools and services
We’re a small team at the Green Web Foundation, so our plan to have outsize impact is to use “open” as a strategy to help shift the norms in how we build the web, and make it easier to help people build greener sites.
If you care about making the web green too, and you’re interested in working with us in this goal, we actively want to speak to other people like you, to build on top of what we’re sharing. Shoot us an email.
Open data for a greener web
We’ve offered an API for checking domains against the Green Web API for a few years. Now we’ve started publishing open datasets around the green web, that you can use in your own products and services, or for your own analysis. Read on to learn more, about why.
Referring back to our map from an earlier post about why most of the web still runs on fossil fuels
In an earlier post where we mapped out a path to a greener web, we shared this Wardley map below, showing the chain of needs for building a digital product for end users.
We started with the product being available at the top, then ran through all the components needed for this from browser or device to access the product on, ,hrough to web servers, networks and datacentres, all the way down to where electricity comes from.
We also covered a bit about why the majority of the web runs on fossil fuels. For the most part, it’s really hard to find out whether services use them or not, because there isn’t much transparency in our industry about how we power our services, and the knowledge required to even ask this is rare.
We represented this rare, little-known info as the blue node in this map, at the bottom left of the map.
Strategies to make this more well known – open data, and open knowledge
There’s a few approaches you can take to make something that’s relatively obscure and poorly known, more commonplace. One approach is to release datasets, ideally with a permissive license to encourage re-use.
ip2geo databases as an example
Datasets already exist, that are freely available, that will let you take an IP address, and get a good idea of it’s the location. Maxmind does this with their GeoLite2 databases:
Because these databases exist, people end up building on top of them to make it easier to add these features into new software. With this data freely available, open source modules like this make incorporating these features an npm install away like with the geoip-lite npm package:
Applying these lessons for the green web – ip2green datasets
We’re following a similar approach, now – by publishing the datasets for free, for others to use.
You might represent this on the map like below – so if you have any product or service that uses IP addresses or domain names, you’d be able to add the ability to show how a service or site is powered yourself.
Our goal, like with the posts we share about how to choose green hosts, or how platform decisions you make affect the carbon footprint of your digital services, is to make this information more widespread and easily accessible.
These datasets are downloadable as CSVs, and in the near future, will be available as SQLite datasets too.
Support and and questions about the data
If you have questions about the datasets, you can contact us for support at [email protected]
If you want to use this data commercially, without keeping it open, we offer redistribution licenses that allow you to package the databases with your commercial products. Send an email to the same address.