? Grid intensity view:

Issue 1

Issue 2

Issue 3

Unknown grid intensity

We need a fossil-free internet by 2030

A fossil free internet is an internet that has transitioned away from burning fossil fuels as its primary source of electricity and towards renewable sources in its place. In this piece, Chris Adams of the Green Web Foundation outlines why we need a fossil-free internet by 2030 and how to get there.

If you were to look at the last 240-odd years since the industrial revolution, one of the key stories often told is one of improved quality of life, largely through increased access to useful energy. If we were to look a little more closely, we might see that this rate of improvement has varied pretty wildly depending on where you are in the world, but by and large, where there has been this improvement, the extra energy has largely come from burning fossil fuels.

Burning these fuels has given us the energy to help in lots of ways—we use it to move around quickly, stay warm, and in the case we’re discussing here, to generate electricity to access the internet.  Even in 2021, we still rely on fossil fuels for about two-thirds of our electricity.

A stacked chart showing fossil fuels making up more than two third of global electricity generation. A third comes from renewables sources, of which wind and solar is the fastest growing.
Source: Ember’s Global Electricity Review, March 2021.

However, it’s not the only way we can get energy these days. The sliver of darker green you see in this chart has been the growth in wind and solar globally. It’s definitely coming from a small base when you look at those ominous bands of grey representing gas, oil and coal, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how powerful exponential growth can be, and how quickly it can sneak up on you. Renewables, particularly wind and solar, are growing exponentially.

But why are they growing exponentially, and what does this have to do with the internet?

We’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a moment to talk about why you might want a fossil free internet from an equity and justice point of view first.

Even if it cost exactly the same amount to power an energy system (and by extension, the entire internet) on fossil fuels as it did to power it on renewables, it would make sense to use renewables if you could, and for a number of reasons.

Fairer access to energy

Access to renewable energy is much more equitably distributed than energy in the form of fossil fuels. Let’s take the story of solar. The sunniest place in the world Azerbaijan is only four times sunnier than the cloudiest place in the world, Norway. Contrast this with how oil is distributed, you’ll see that the places with the most oil have a million times as much as the places with the least.

Henry Helvetica on stage at JS Conf , talking about where the future users of the internet are coming from.
Henry Helvetica at JS ConfEU, talking about the countries with the most people coming online, with many extremely exposed the risks of climage change (original link)

Also, if you look where “the next billion users” to join the internet will be coming from, almost all will be coming from places outside North America and Europe. These are places that tend to be blessed with more sunshine than average but in many cases end up paying for expensive imports of fossil fuels to power their economies. 

Even when you take into account the sourcing of the minerals you would need for an energy transition to safer, cleaner forms of energy, the differences are less pronounced than the current situation we have with fossil fuels. 

Also once you have a way to generate energy, you don’t have to keep buying fuel from someone.  Owning your own (literal) means of production is a pretty good way to build power and disrupt chains of dependency that have existed for decades.

Owning your own (literal) means of production is a pretty good way to build power and disrupt chains of dependency that have existed for decades.

Moore’s Law, Wright’s Law, and the magic of experience curves

If you work with computers, you might have heard of a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law, named after the co-founder of Intel. Since the 1970s’ it’s been the oft-cited law that every two years, the number of transistors you can fit on a circuit doubles. This translates to computers getting inexorably cheaper and more powerful with each year.  

A chart depicting Moores's law, showing a downward trend, of transistor prices over time.
Charting the cost from transistors over time, blue dots are the data points, the black lines are the projected costs from each year (source)

However, Moore’s Law does not mean computers magically get cheaper all by themselves – they’ve been  getting cheaper because as we’ve made more of them, we’ve got better at making them.

This premise, that the cost changes based on how much we do something, not how long we have been doing it, ends up being a better way to predict how costs change over time. It also has it’s own name and creator.

In the 1930s, the costs of building aircraft fell dramatically as we learned to build them at scale. For every doubling in production volume, the cost per plane would come down by about 20%. After the engineer, Theodore P. Wright published a paper about this phenomenon, “Factors affecting the costs of aeroplanes”, it became known as Wright’s Law.

This drop in cost as production scales is sometimes also known as the learning rate – it represents how quickly we get better at building things with experience. And crucially, it compounds over time.

If you made a chart it might look a bit like the curve below. Because these often look like curves, it’s common to refer to them as experience curves.

A simplified chart showing an experience curve. At low production volume costs are high. At high production volumes costs are lower
An example of an experience curve. As production volume increases, the price per unit comes at a compounding rate

Wright’s Law is close to a hundred years old now, and as a result we have decades of data to we can test it against. It turns out that it applies to a wide range of different technologies, but not all technologies.

And if you look at the excitingly titled paper Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition from the Oxford Institute for New Economic Thinking, we can see some of this helpfully charted for us.

Let’s look at the historical data for fossil fuels.

Three charts showing the cost of fossil fuels over time. The trend of costs has largely stayed about the same, or upwards slightly.
These charts show the cost of fossil fuels, adjusted for inflation over the last 140 years. While the costs change from year to year, the trend is generally flat.

Even as fossil fuel use has increased massively over the last 140 years, we’ve seen no real evidence of learning rates –  and once you take inflation into account, you’d see that fossil fuel prices have largely stayed the same.

For folks on lower incomes, it can be difficult to afford the ongoing costs of fuel, and to compensate, we’ve ended up with many well-meaning policies globally, intended to make sure people have access to energy – largely by subsidies to make them seem cheaper to those buying them.

The result? Globally, we now subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of around 6 trillion US dollars every year.

Globally, we now subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of around 6 trillion US dollars every year.

But it’s not the only way to get cheaper energy.

Changing the defaults from ones that don’t learn, to ones that do learn

We’ve seen that with fossil fuels, you do not really have much of a learning rate. But we can see that some technologies like wind, solar, batteries, and now hydrogen electrolysers definitely do. As an example, the cost of solar panels is 1000 times lower than it was in the 1960s. And both batteries and solar in 2021 are about 10 times cheaper than they were just 10 years earlier.

What’s more, recent studies of learning rates across different technologies show that once we have enough data to see if there is a learning rate, it’s persistent. The technology keeps getting cheaper as production keeps increasing, up until it has become the dominant technology and then production tails off.

Again, if we borrow another chart from our new friend Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition, we can see the prices trending downwards spectacularly.

Charts show falling prices for solar, wind, batteries and and hydrogen electrolyzers, combining historical data, and forward projections.
These charts show the learning curves for batteries, solar, wind and hydrogen electrolyzers from historical data, and the same learning rates projected forwards out to 2071. Different scenarios show how the cost changes, based on how much we scale up production.

If you follow these experience curves through to 2030 and beyond, for solar, wind, batteries and electrolysers, you end up with energy being so cheap, that the most expensive energy in 2030 would be the same price as the cheapest energy in 2020. 

At these costs, even if fossil fuels didn’t cause millions of unnecessary deaths, and accelerate climate change, it would make no sense to use them, as they’d be dirtier, and more expensive than the new default of renewables.

At these costs, even if fossil fuels didn’t cause millions of unnecessary deaths, and accelerate climate change, it would make no sense to use them, as they’d be dirtier, more expensive than the new default of renewables.

This means that while we can’t change the physics around climate change, we can change the economics around climate change if we’re thoughtful about where our energy comes from.

Instead of artificially subsidising fossil fuels to make them seem cheap and accessible, we could choose to spend the same money on scaling up safer, better performing renewable technologies instead. We’ve make energy just accessible in the short term, and by doing so, we’d also be bringing down the cost of energy for everyone, permanently.

The dream of a fossil free internet.

What does this have to do with the internet? At the Green Web Foundation, we talk about a fossil-free internet for a few reasons. 

We know that the internet has a sizable energy footprint, and we know that this electricity has to come from somewhere— right now the default is fossil fuels. We also know that some technologies get cheaper the more you invest in them… and that some don’t.

Globally, some sectors are difficult to decarbonise, like aviation. Yet some like the IT sector, are comparatively easy. Focusing efforts there to begin with will make it easier to decarbonise others later because displacing fossils would involve scaling up renewable energy in its place – which we now know would make it cheaper and more accessible everywhere else.

Changes here are what you might call first-tonne emission reductions. If you do them first, they have a compounding effect that helps in all the other areas. A lot of the time, they’re also cheaper than business as usual over the medium to long term.

We think this is a better approach than just keeping the internet as it is, and just doing something like planting trees, or even relying on carbon removal to offset the emissions from electricity. You might call these last tonne emission reductions, and they’re better off used for things where we don’t really have any mainstream alternative options yet.

Getting to a fossil free internet from here

If a fossil-free internet sounds like a good thing to you, it’s important to understand that many of the routes there involve systemic changes, and engaging as a citizen over engaging as a consumer. But there are still some things you could do tomorrow.

If you use digital services as a customer, then you can simply ask the providers of services if they have plans about greening the way they build them. It helps people inside the companies make the case for doing the right thing, and for playing a part in the transition of the internet away from fossil fuels. We have a free website checker you can use, and it’s used in a number of sites you might have heard of like Website Carbon.

If you build digital services and you want to account for emissions from computers, then instead of buying offsets, think about spending the same money on deploying renewables in your part of the world. Companies like Clearloop in the US, and Ripple Energy in the UK help with this. They allow you to help finance the rollout of wind and solar that otherwise wouldn’t be built. 

If you run infrastructure yourself or if you run datacentres, it’s likely that companies like Google pay less than you do for power. This is because they use enough electricity to be able to arrange power purchase agreements, which are deals to buy the power from a renewable energy project over a multi-year period that helps it get built. The reward for this commitment is a supply of fossil-free energy at stable, low prices. Companies like Zeigo are working to make these accessible to smaller organisations, but in Europe groups like the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance work at a policy level too.

Branch magazine was written for people who dream of a sustainable internet. A fossil free internet by 2030 isn’t a dream: it’s a goal within reach, one that we can and should strive for.

You can read more about getting to a fossil-free internet on the Green Web Foundation website.

AUTHORS

Chris Adams is a co-organiser of the online community Climate Action.tech, and a director of the Green Web Foundation, leading their energy, open source and open data initiatives.

Letter from the Editors

The internet—essential to modern life and also the world’s largest coal-powered machine. 

Like the shipping industry, packets zigzag across the globe and connect billions of people through a colossal distributed infrastructure we rarely see until it chokes, like a container ship stuck in the Suez Canal or Facebook going down. 

Ships run on bunker fuel, some of the dirtiest sludge on the planet. Much of the internet burns on coal, the historically the cheapest, most convenient fuel available. And while the IPCC is calling “a code red for humanity,” the tech sector and shipping each emit 1-3% of the world’s carbon a year with projections rising. 

The internet is becoming a brittle and polluting monoculture. Seven Big Tech companies predominantly control the internet and its infrastructure, and they are among the wealthiest in the world. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, with more frequent and severe weather events, and more wealth is consolidated in the tech sector even during a pandemic, we’re seeing how this destructive default doesn’t serve humanity or the planet.

What’s more, when we do see chances to change the rules for a fairer, more sustainable, more just set of defaults, to steer us away from the cliff, we see these same firms lobbying to kill this progress in the name of short-term profits.

A Dissonance 

Like many tech workers who grew up loving the possibilities of the internet to connect and empower people, learning about its destructive power causes us to experience a dissonance. How can this tool, with so much potential, speed up fire and floods and human suffering? What are we going to do about it? 

Tech is built and maintained by people. What tech workers do each day can either accelerate the climate crisis or slow it down. As tech ownership and profits become concentrated to the hands of a few, how can workers advocate for their rights and more equitable futures? More than transitioning energy, we must shift power. 

Divest from Big Tech

Today, we’re seeing tech workers unite across geography and pay grade to link arms with climate activists to demand better. 

Big Tech sells itself as a solution to the crisis. But it’s part of the problem, too. The tech sector is rife with lucrative contracts with fossil fuel companies. Brilliant software engineering—optimizing this, improving a model for that—ends up accelerating the extraction of oil and gas, which when burned, pollutes the air, heats the planet and cuts short the lives of millions of plants, animals and people.

Big Tech must end its business with fossil fuels companies. And we, the people who dream of a sustainable, just and diverse internet, need to divest from Big Tech.  

A Fossil Free Internet by 2030

That why we want to focus our efforts on achieving a fossil-free internet. And we want to make that happen by 2030. 

The urgency and scale of the climate crisis demands action. With a big push, the internet could be decarbonized in a few years. And in that transition, we could reform the internet and turn it into a positive force for climate justice. 

To get there, we need new narratives that shift what is desirable and possible. We need to transform our practices and make strategic partnerships with allied causes. And we need open infrastructure—data, code, poetry and repeatable pilots—to model how we can build bridges across social movements and achieve a fossil-free internet by 2030.

This issue of Branch uplifts the people and projects who are making that vision a reality. We want to situate these issues in larger movements for sustainable and just societies. We want to think at a network-level and in open partnership to gain momentum. We want to challenge colonial solutions on how to get to a fossil-free internet through further extraction of the Global South. 

The next few years will be critical for the future of the planet and the internet. We need to expand the coalition of people working towards this shift. We hope you find some inspiration for action here. 

Climate Justice as a Core Competency among Internet Practitioners

Designs from Kimono Pattern Books (ca. 1902) via The Public Domain Review

A few months ago, we at the Green Web Foundation set out to understand: How do we advance climate justice as a core competency among internet practitioners? 

To learn more and practice these findings, we created a fellowship programme to bring on board five fellows with a range of perspectives and experiences. This article summarises the findings and co-learnings through the fellowship so far.

How It’s Going

The Green Web Foundation’s fellowship set out to explore three goals. Firstly, to explore the narratives of responsible internet practices. Secondly, to understand the key characteristics of climate justice in the context of a sustainable internet. Lastly, ways to teach these practices forward among internet practitioners. 

The Narratives

The Green Web Fellowship sought to explore compelling narratives that link responsible Internet practice with climate justice. This first phase focused on testing and learning from what is working in narrative storytelling. Validation and feedback in various communities were drawn upon, from open source web developers to digital security trainers, from sustainable development experts and climate activists.

The emerging themes are:

“A fossil-free internet by 2030.” Through conversations with our fellows and in our convenings, we realized setting a target would help galvanize and focus on climate action. We’re currently commissioning supporting research on a path to fully transition the internet away from fossil fuels by 2030. This has been an exciting development to emerge from this research.  

“Divest from Big Tech.” Even if the internet moved to 100% renewables, while it would definitely be an improvement, we wouldn’t have achieved a sustainable and just internet. We would also need to be prepared to talk about power as well as energy—being prepared to divest from Big Tech and its control over our internet infrastructure, software and economics is one way to address an existing imbalance of power. We can point to multiple examples of divestment as a strategy to press issues that would otherwise be ignored by large, powerful players, from the social justice point of view, but increasingly a climate justice point of view as well.

“Climate justice as a core competency.” Many efforts to green the internet do not centre on climate justice. While our program has a long way to go to better understand what it means to address this idea meaningfully, we are finding that it is very enriching to do so and supports a larger vision of social justice and equity. 

Climate justice in the context of a sustainable internet

Building on the fellows’ experience and learning arcs, as well as in conversation with communities and one other, the programme sought to understand the skills and characteristics that might describe climate justice as a core competency with internet practitioners. 

The key to this was understanding how fellows could be community organisers and peer learners as they answer this question for themselves. We host weekly conversations about how to connect their individual interests and experiences to the goals of the larger fellowship program. So far, this has been a rewarding space for peer learning and new takes on the program’s theme have emerged from it, including: 

  • Where you stand depends on where you sit: position, visibility & defusing privilege
  • Reform, Resistance, Reform after Resistance
  • Appropriate technology and a sustainable internet
  • How much do tech workers currently talk about `climate justice` and other keywords? Data scraping and analysis. 
  • Framing sustainability with and without justice.
  • Openness as a tool to shift power.
  • Abolitionist tech stack.

Salient questions our fellows are surfacing as part of the research:

  • What resources are powering our projects and how do we manage those resources? 
  • Are we willing to approach our work with a set of values that centers several generations after us? And how do we do that?
  • What protections do we need to fight for in the workplace to hold companies accountable around climate justice goals?
  • How do we measure our impact on the climate crisis?
  • Are we willing to sundown projects if mitigating their negative impact on the environment is impossible or creates little impact?

We created an open library of recommended reading and other resources we come across or write. This is hosted on Zotero, an open-source tool that makes it easy for others to contribute and export these readings. 

Teaching It Forward

It’s not just about understanding what climate justice looks like—internet practitioners will have to commitment to transform practices and behaviours with the aspiration to connect with others and teach it forward. 

In support of that, we hosted the Gathering for a Sustainable Internet with 25 digital rights, climate justice, and open/green technology practitioners thinking at a “network level” about these challenges. We sought to work with people interested in building bridges, working in a coalition with each other, and collaborating at scale. 

Together with the human rights and digital security trainer Beatrice Martini, we hosted a Capacity Building workshop in November for the fellows on designing learning experiences for adults and how to design syllabi. This workshop builds on a course taught at Harvard School of Education and the agenda and activities will be published in the open. 

The next phase of the fellowship will focus on how to best serve the communities and beneficiaries from the fellows are working with, and how their engagement can refine and improve these advocacy narratives, learning materials and ultimately find pathways to incorporate climate justice in the careers of internet practitioners.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

The program is only halfway done and will run for several more months. If you want to read more about how internet practitioners can advance climate justice in their own work, read more about what the fellows are learning and trying out on the Green Web Foundation blog

A Carbon-Aware Internet

Workers installing a new crowd funded turbine
Photo credits: Ashden / Ashden (CC BY). Source: Climate Visuals

The internet is the biggest machine in the world, and even now, in 2021 it still mostly runs on fossil fuels. That’s because electricity grids still mostly run on fossil fuels. As we learn more about the climate crisis, it’s becoming clear that we need for rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to the systems underpinning our society. This includes the internet.

It’s easy to think about the internet, and it’s constant appetite for electricity, only as a problem contributing to the climate crisis. However, it’s not going away anytime soon, so instead, I think it’s better to explore the role it should play in accelerating our transition away from fossil fuels. In this piece, we’ll cover how we can decarbonise the internet, and how we can use it as a tool to speed our transition towards a more sustainable and humane society.

Understanding How We Power the Internet Now And How It Is Changing

Globally, most of the electricity we use today comes from burning fossil fuels, The internet is no exception.

We dig up fuel, burn it to generate heat, and use this heat to boil water and make steam. This steam turns turbines, which generates the electricity that everything relies on. So, as long as we have fuel, we have control over when we generate electricity.

This control is convenient, but it comes with costs. Burning these fuels is inefficient as most of the energy is wasted as unused heat, but it also puts CO2 into the sky, worsening the climate crisis. On a shorter timeline, the toxins released all along the supply chain kill literally millions of people each year – in some years causing 1 in 5 early deaths around the world.

This is changing though – we are in the middle of a transition from burning concentrated, fossilised fuels like coal, oil and gas for energy, to one where we collect energy instead through renewable sources around us in the natural world.

While there are obvious benefits climate and health wise to this transition, it means the amount we have available is more dependent on the patterns of the natural world around us – night and day, the seasons, the weather, and so on.

Designing Distributed Digital Services for an Internet Transitioning to Renewable Energy

As we move from a wasteful, but conveniently linear dig, burn, use approach, it’s useful to understand how we can take advantage of the changing economics, where we no longer need to pay for fuel once infrastructure is built.

One way we can do this is to apply what we know already about distributed systems to achieve scalability, reliability, and performance, and use it to cope with scenarios where our energy comes from diverse, distributed, and intermittent sources.

Designing for Local Resources: Content Delivery Networks and Distributed Energy

We can see some of these ideas at work when we look at content delivery networks. Netflix is a good example. Instead of relying on one massive data center where all the videos are served to all of its customers, Netflix operates a system of caching servers called OpenConnect, where they serve local copies of the same content to users instead.

Image via ExaMesh Media

Because these servers are specialised for serving copies of data rather than doing anything else, they are much better at it than normal servers – these use around 10% of all the electricity used by Netflix’s digital infrastructure, but serve around 90% of the content we stream from netflix.

The Solar Protocol is an art project taking this idea further – content is still copied across multiple servers, but instead of just taking into account geographic proximity, it also takes into account which locations are the sunniest – and which servers have the greatest reserves of solar energy available to them.

When a server is running low on energy, requests are then routed to the next sunniest location, and so on, and it’s always sunny somewhere.

This shift is comparable to us moving from a single centralised fossil power plant, to one where we rely on multiple distributed wind and solar farms, or batteries feeding into a grid, where the energy is used directly, closer to where it is being consumed. As long as what we’re serving is fungible, many of the ideas we use for serving cached content can be used to help us efficiently serve requests with greener energy too.

Designing for Intermittency: Reliability and Throughput through Redundancy

Distributed services are services that are designed to tolerate individual parts of the system constantly failing, without the entire system going down.

The modern day internet is full of them, and many of the approaches around ‘big data’, popularised by tech giants like Google and Amazon, revolve around splitting big computing jobs into lots of smaller jobs, that can be worked on by smaller, fungible commodity machines, often in parallel. Here a percentage of these smaller jobs are expected to fail, if only because of the sheer scale they operate at. When this happens, these jobs are often migrated to healthier parts of the system to be retried, or iIn some cases the same job might be run in multiple places to begin with – achieving reliability through redundancy.

Again, this echoes how distributed energy grids work, both at a micro-scale, where you expect individual modules on a solar farm to fail and plan accordingly, to a macro-scale, where people deliberately overbuild renewable energy plants to be more sure they will generate as much power as they need, knowing that they will not be able to use all of them all the time. For example, if you have three wind turbines, and you know you can use only 33% of the power they each generate over the year, you might build three of them, so on average, you’ll have around 100% of your needs met. 

As the energy is free, there will also be times where you will have three times as much energy available as you originally needed, which you can put to new uses.

In the United states, Lancium take advantage of these cycles of abundance by putting shipping containers full of second-hand servers from large hyperscale tech companies, next to wind and solar farms, and power them with this excess energy. As a result, they’re able to sell the same computing services as bigger tech firms, but 5 times cheaper. This is because they are first saving money on the reused hardware but also the cost of energy, as they can choose to run them when energy is cheapest. In addition, if you are prepared to design your system to handle some jobs failing or being moved to other locations when energy becomes more scarce, the cost goes down further.

In Germany, Examesh does something similar, by putting datacentres into the base of wind turbine towers to use energy when it’s abundant, and sell useful computing services.

Again, once you rethink the underlying assumptions about where power comes from, how much it costs, and how this might change, different ways of designing digital infrastructure become possible.

Designing for Carbon Optimisation: Matching Natural Cycles of Abundance

As digital services have grown more sophisticated, an increasing amount of computation ends up happening in the background, where it’s still important that it happens, but precisely when it happens is less so. These might be jobs to annotate videos with helpful captions, or various other machine learning jobs, simple backups and so on.

Where there’s flexibility about when you can do work, there’s scope to time this work to take advantage of when there’s an oversupply of energy on the grids we rely on, and when energy is particularly cheap (and as we’ve seen before, usually greener than normal).

Google does this through data centres now, where the digital infrastructure responds to the mix of fuels on the grid, and delays jobs until renewable energy is abundant before spinning up machines to work through this stored queue of work.

Building Carbon Awareness into the Internet

However in Switzerland, this idea of carbon awareness is being built into the internet protocols themselves with SCION. Initially conceived of as a security focussed successor to Border Gateway Protocol, the protocol that joins individual networks together to create the internet in the first place, SCION pushes decisions about how to move data around away from individual routers, to the devices at the end instead. This means that instead of sending a packet of data along to the next hop on the network and hoping for the best, with SCION, you can see the possible routes data will take to reach its destination before sending it, and make deliberate routing decisions based on a rich set of criteria.

This was originally designed to allow engineers to route around certain untrusted parts of the internet, or explicitly choose a route that suits your specific use of the network. An example might be a video call for an important meeting – for this you might care about a reliable low latency stream, and prioritise a low latency route that costs more, compared to a more typical use case of downloading video, where cost, or throughput might be more important to you.

This same flexibility also means that it’s possible to choose routes based on how green the path to a destination is too – avoiding regions when the cost of energy is high, and the power is dirty, or where there’s a scarcity of green energy available.

We already have carbon pricing in the energy sector, which increases the cost of running infrastructure on dirty power. As this premium on pollution becomes more visible, you can see how greener routes would be cheaper, as well as less ecologically destructive – so being able to actively choose these when routing would create a virtuous cycle, where greener routes attract more traffic, incentivising a switch to green power.

From an Industrial Mindset to One of Stewardship

When we think about how we might design digital services, in the coming years, we have to  move away from a linear, industrial mindset, where we think primarily in terms of dig, burn, use, and where we  see the environment as separate from us. In its place, we should  move to a mindset based around being an actor in a complex adaptive ecosystem. We should think in terms of stewardship of the natural cycles of abundance and scarcity of resources around us, and this sensibility is something we can build into the internet itself.

Learn More About a Greener Internet

If the idea of a greener, more open, more carbon aware internet is interesting to you, we are  currently running a fellowship programme where we build a syllabus of open educational resources aimed at technologists who want to incorporate the ideas of climate justice into their daily practice.

We’re looking for folks to join us on the journey and in particular cross-functional teams interested in working with us to test out and co-design the activities in the syllabus, as we develop them. You can find out more about the programme on our fellowship page, on the green web foundation website.

Branch launch notice

Hi there,

You’re receiving this because at some point in the last few weeks, you signed up to be notified when Branch magazine was live, and available to read.

What is branch magazine?

Branch is the first magazine from climateAction.tech – an online magazine written by and for people who dream of a sustainable and just internet for all.
You can check it out below at the link below:

https://branch.climateaction.tech

Asking a favour

We have help from Mozilla, ClimateKIC, and various other partners in getting the word out, but we’re hoping you can help us try something with Branch.

Over the next few days we want to try collating threads on social media that riff off the articles and themes in this first issue, so if you have a moment, please take a moment to pick a piece you enjoyed in Branch, and start a thread using the hashtag #branchmag, with your take on the piece.

It might be about what you found interesting, what you enjoyed, or what you’d like to see covered in a future issue on the subject.

We’ll be collating these, and we want to use it to identify new voices and ideas for the next issue in Sprint 2021. Ideally, we’d be able to refer to one or two of yours as examples for other CATs to follow when we announce Branch in next weeks newsletter, in a continuing experiment in public discourse in the digital commons.

So, you in?

Thanks again for your attention, and enjoy the week

Chris, Michelle, and the rest of the Branch magazine team.

Letter from the Editors

A page from the 1901 issue of Shin-Bijutsukai, a Japanese design magazine
A page from the 1901 issue of Shin-Bijutsukai, a Japanese design magazine | Public Domain Review

We believe that the internet must serve our collective liberation and ecological sustainability. We want the internet to help us dismantle the power structures that delay climate action and for the internet itself to become a positive force for climate justice.

Branch magazine is a space for personal reflection, critical engagement with technology and internet economics, as well as experimentation and storytelling. It is an online magazine written by and for people who dream of a sustainable and just internet. 


Creating change requires all kinds of practices—art and design, professional development, civic participation, policy and advocacy, imagination and positive visions for our future. This magazine is our small attempt to gather what inspires and challenges us and to publish that in the open. 

We invited 25 wonderful people to share how they understand the climate impact of technology and how we might change it for the better. In this magazine, you will hear from internet professionals—developers, designers, managers, executives, educators, policymakers, funders and artists—describe how they are greening their daily professional practice. You will see that there are very direct actions, such as switching computation to run on renewables. Yet there are deeper, systemic ways to green the internet that you will also find described here, and it is this practice that we seek to cultivate.  

For deeper change to happen, internet professionals must understand the underlying structural issues of the climate crisis and its inequalities. We must go beyond tech solutionism and towards intersectional climate justice work. We strive to connect sustainability to root causes and to inequalities experienced at different intersections—gender, race, class, ability, and so on. 

Going forward we see the need to more develop interdisciplinary practices and tools for greening the internet. Mentorship and collaboration play a key role, as does supporting technologists on their climate journeys and closing the gaps in climate justice and digital rights efforts. 

The Making of Branch: GOLD principles

In the making of Branch, we wanted the website itself to live up to the dream of a sustainable internet. We know that technology isn’t neutral, and therefore we set out to embed the values of a more sustainable, just internet into the website design and development.

We were inspired by frameworks for inclusive design and accessibility, such as POUR (perceivable, operable, understandable, robust) in the WCAG guidelines. For the Branch website, the qualities we sought were Green, Open, Lean, and Distributed, or GOLD

Here’s how we broke down GOLD for making an online magazine. We think it can be adapted for other digital products as well.

Green

Green refers to green energy and the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. We thought through the digital supply chain: from the site running on servers powered by green energy, to adapting what we send over a network, to designing for the widest range of devices, and reducing the need to run on newer hardware.

Open

Open in this context refers to a cultural practice beyond a software license. We share the site’s source code on Github, and we also chose to use WordPress because we know that more than a quarter of the web runs on WordPress. We teamed up with experts in the ClimateAction.tech community with prior work in this domain, like the author of wp-susty,  to make the approach we took easier to emulate on other sites without needing to be a specialist developer.

Most the content is licensed under the permissive Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license, and we sourced many of our images from public domain archives and other open image pools. We also chose an open license to make it easier for the ideas in this magazine to be copied and modified across other nodes of the internet. We hope this gives the content a resiliency long after this website is forgotten.

We also wanted to be open and transparent about physical resources required to use digital services, which is why we foreground grid intensity on the website. By exposing the materiality of the internet and the intermittent patterns of renewable energy, visitors to the site can see how the website changes in response to the amount of renewables on the electricity grid. 

Lean

Lean is an acknowledgement that even when we use green energy, there is still an unavoidable environmental impact to most digital activity. Our decisions of what to build matter, and so we chose to tread lightly. While lean here refers to avoiding needless waste, at the same time, like in healthy ecosystems, it is critical to keep some slack in the ecosystem and to stay flexible and adaptable to outside changes. Otherwise, if we obsess over efficiency above all else, we can end up in a brittle, hyper-optimised state. Or we end up cutting out features and media so intensively that we remove much of what makes the internet fun to begin with.

Distributed

Distributed refers to both geographical and temporal shifts of activity. We designed the website to be easy to cache and distribute across a content delivery network. Furthermore, visitors can time-shift more energy intensive activities, such as downloading heavy media files, to happen when there’s greener electricity available. 

We hope you enjoy this first issue of Branch magazine. Thank you for reading!

About the authors

Michelle Thorne is interested in climate justice and a fossil-free internet. As a Senior Program Officer at the Mozilla Foundation, Michelle leads a PhD program on Open Design of Trust Things (OpenDoTT) with Northumbria University and several art and research initiatives as an Environmental Champion in Mozilla’s Sustainability Program.

Chris Adams is a co-organiser of the online community Climate Action.tech, and co-founder of greening.digital, a consultancy specialising in helping digital teams, build greener digital products and services. He joined the Green Web Foundation in 2019 to lead their energy, open source and open data initiatives.