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Issue 1

Issue 2

Unknown grid intensity

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.