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Can the Internet Survive Climate Change?

How a warming world is sparking calls for a greener web

In a tiny apartment in the Spanish coastal town of El Masnou, just outside of Barcelona, Kris de Decker runs a website completely powered by a small solar panel crammed into the corner of his balcony. With its light blue background and low-res imagery, the site for Low-Tech Magazine is intentionally retro—a callback to blogs and self-hosted sites from the mid-to-late 1990s. Each web page uses only .77 megabytes of data, making it more than 50 percent leaner than the average web page. It is also static, meaning it lives entirely on its locally hosted solar-powered server and as a result is only generated once, requiring less computing power than a dynamic site that generates anew for each visitor. Low-Tech has no ads and doesn’t use cookies. Even if the site were not powered by solar energy, these choices would make it that rare thing: an environmentally friendly web page. 

According to a tool developed by the web design firm Wholegrain Digital, Low-Tech’s carbon footprint, i.e., the amount of electricity required to run it, is around 0.24 grams of carbon per page view. This article on The New Republic’s website uses around 2.6g of carbon, more than 10 times as much. Every website on the internet requires energy—and in a global economic system that’s mostly reliant on fossil fuel, that means more pollution. Even the most basic internet activities incur eye-popping costs: Streaming one hour of Netflix a week requires more electricity, annually, than the yearly output of two new refrigerators.

The articles on Low-Tech, mostly written by de Decker, are focused on novel solutions to our energy and tech predicament. In one piece, he explains how to get your apartment off the grid; in another, he advocates for an internet speed limit to reduce the energy costs of rapid data usage. From design to content, Low-Tech is a thought experiment about a possible DIY future for the web. It’s an internet that is locally governed, slower, and sustainable.

There are some downsides to the solar-powered site—a cloudy day in Barcelona might force Low-Tech to go off-line. And since Google search prioritizes faster and more reliable websites, sites like Low-Tech might always be relegated to the margins of the mainstream web. But de Decker suggests we will all have to make sacrifices and adjustments if we want a web that is ecologically viable, rather than the one we know today: owned and operated by massive telecom companies, reliant on the dirty power of cloud computing, and geared toward profit. 

“One of the reasons why the energy use of the internet keeps increasing is that we are always online, and from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep, we’re connected,” de Decker says. “We thought it was important to question always being online. Do we really need to be connected every minute of the day?”

How the internet adapts to the pressures of the climate crisis will change daily life as we know it, from high-speed trading to shit-posting, from email to aircraft control. It’s an open question whether the internet of the future will be as reliable as it is today. In fact, it’s likely that internet access will be among the many scarce resources that future generations will fight over, and that this unequal distribution could create two different internets: one for the poor and another for the rich. 

Everything is going to change, and quickly. Sites like Low-Tech offer one possible future, but generally speaking, the internet is likely to face changes to its basic infrastructure that will be both sweeping and hard to predict. In the last few months, I’ve talked to dozens of people—web designers and futurists, computer scientists and activists—who are all increasingly concerned about the internet’s own climate impact and its operational vulnerability in a fast-warming planet. What follows, pieced together from their observations, is a provisional picture of the internet’s future in the age of global warming.

The internet is inextricably tied to the coming horrors of the climate crisis. It is both a major force behind that crisis and one of its likely casualties.

It is the largest coal-fired machine on the entire planet, accounting for 10 percent of global electricity demand. And the internet’s climate impact is only going to get worse: Around half of the world has yet to log on—a presently disconnected population of more than three billion people eager to begin streaming videos and updating Facebook accounts. The internet’s cut of the world’s electricity demand will likely rise to 20 percent or more by 2030, at which point it will produce more carbon than any country except China, India, and the United States.  

As the world gets hotter, as the forests burn and cities flood, our devices will start to fail, too. In data centers around the world, where the vast majority of the internet is stored, cooling and energy costs will rise exponentially. The electromagnetic frequency that Wi-Fi travels along will be disrupted, mangled by the increased intensity of ultraviolet rays from the sun. In the next 15 years, the coastal tubes and wires (4,067 miles of fiber conduit, to be exact) that transmit Americans’ data will drown under salt water. The materials that prop up the web, such as rare earth minerals, will become harder and harder to come by. 

How do we even begin to confront this array of systemic issues? A good place to start is by creating a more ecologically friendly web, along the lines of de Decker’s site and other projects now being prototyped by engineers within the nascent community of sustainable web design. They agree on a few core tenets: Advertising is bad, the growth of video streaming must slow, web pages are too bloated, and corporate surveillance has to end.

Chris Adams, a web designer and climate activist in Berlin, tells me he thinks a green internet must be free of advertising. “Ninety percent of a web page being ads requires servers, and those servers are taking electricity, and that electricity is generated by burning coal,” he says. Adams has written that the European site for USA Today is a model of efficiency. It removed all of its tracking scripts and ads to be compliant with recent General Data Protection Regulation legislation in the European Union. The site size immediately shrank from 5 megabytes to 500 kilobytes, but it still basically looks the same—there are just no ads. The leaner site, based on Adams’s rough calculations, saves more energy and pollutes less. Its monthly reduction in carbon dioxide, based on traffic numbers, is the equivalent of a flight between New York and Chicago.

Relatedly, with ads and tracking scripts gone, energy cost and data usage doesn’t just plummet—there are also fewer people looking over your shoulder when you visit USA Today’s website. “Is a climate-friendly internet one in which you’re not surveilled?” asks Tim Frick, CEO of the green digital agency Mightybytes. “I absolutely believe that.” 

But a web that is free of advertising is a difficult proposition, because, well, ads pay for most of the internet. Frick says the ad-generated internet is not going to go away anytime soon. He advocates a streamlining of internet process—keeping bandwidth down with more responsible and efficient ad tech, for example. “We have to rethink how we get our information and how we access it,” Frick says.

Still, the web is also getting larger, not smaller, and that will create additional carbon costs down the line. File compression and data management may get more efficient, but it will be very difficult to contain the “tsunami of data” that billions more users will unleash. Tom Greenwood, the co-founder of Wholegrain Digital, tells me, “We’re living in a golden age of cheap data, and people only start saving water when they think there is a limit on how much they can use.” He predicts that there will be a “rapid transition” away from our current usage trends as data becomes more scarce and more expensive. 

Mike Hazas, a computer scientist at Lancaster University in the U.K., is particularly concerned about streaming and its growing data burden, which he believes could be catastrophic. He predicts that videos, “both subscription and advertising based,” will grow “exponentially.” The internet’s data load will only get more unwieldy with the expansion of the faster 5G wireless network, higher-fidelity products like 4K and 8K video, cloud gaming, and streamed virtual reality. All that means more pollution. “Beyond 2030,” Hazas says, “we could see the total electricity usage of the internet rise to more than 50 percent of the global usage—which will in turn contribute to global warming and disadvantage large parts of the global population.” 

We’ve grown used to communicating in videos, memes, and animation. Most websites are packed with video players, blaring banner ads, pop-ups, elaborate layouts. But the glut of data costs actual energy. And do we actually need any of it? “Streaming could easily be 10 percent of global electricity by 2030,” says Hazas, “and will that be OK?” In many ways, the campaign to make the web environmentally friendly is also a campaign to make it less wasteful, chaotic, and toxic.

Paul Barford, a University of Wisconsin computer scientist who discovered that most of the internet’s coastline infrastructure in America is poised to drown in the next decade, believes the internet is going to get a lot less reliable. But outages and other impacts will likely be wildly disparate, depending on geography and wealth. “With countries that don’t have the scale of infrastructure … we enjoy in the U.S.,” he says, “the situation is potentially dire.” 

For the biggest companies, business will continue unabated. “Will Google go down? Will Amazon go down? Of course not,” Barford says. These tech giants, which control swaths of the market, prioritize staying online at all costs. With their resources, political power, and user base, it’s not hard to imagine them weathering a changing planet no matter the price. They’re too big to fail. 

That doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to afford to log on to them, though. Gary Cook, an information technology expert at Greenpeace, says financial inequities are going to define the future of internet access. Giant internet companies will find ways to harden and protect their infrastructure. Wealthier individuals, meanwhile, will also be able to safeguard their internet-enabled lifestyles, as they come to depend even more on permanent connection, and smart-home gadgets and wearables inundate the market. “Customers with the wherewithal to pay for more reliable services will still get [them],” Cook says, “and there will be a wider divide between those who do and don’t.” 

Those predictions track with a general consensus that climate change will exacerbate global economic inequality. A recent report delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council envisions a coming era of climate apartheid, in which the wealthy will pay whatever it costs to escape hot, hungry, and conflict-laden regions, while the rest of the population suffers. Historian Mike Davis predicted all this a decade ago in a 2010 essay “Who Will Build the Ark?” An increasingly warm and unstable climate would, Davis warned, accelerate the existing divide between the rich and the poor. Earth’s “first-class passengers,” as he called them, would invest in selective adaptation and protective measures to wall themselves within “green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet.”

Xiaowei Wang, a geographer and internet researcher at University of California, Berkeley, who studies internet usage in rural China, says that, when it comes to the online experience there, such oases have already emerged. “Will there be two siloed internets? One for the urban elite? And one for the rest of us? This is happening now!” she says. People in the Chinese countryside already access a different internet than their urban counterparts because the “material realities are drastically different.” 

The downside of making the internet greener is that those without money might not be able to access a web experience that is not subsidized by advertising and corporate surveillance and pop-ups. If you have money, you’ll be able to afford more data, more bandwidth, and a more reliable connection. The wealthy will move freely in the web’s comfortable walled gardens.

What’s to be done? The market, from insurance companies to investment banks, is already calculating the damages that might occur once the global economy at large starts to blow past the markers laid out by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Paris climate agreement. But even as more people get online, and more data circulates, and more energy gets used, the march toward renewables and a carbon-neutral internet remains halting. 

There are some wild moon shots being proposed, such as Amazon’s promise to create a satellite-distributed internet and Microsoft’s claim that it will revolutionize data centers by storing our files on “manufactured DNA.” 

But as David Wallace-Wells points out in his recent book The Uninhabitable Earth, “We think of climate change as slow, but it is unnervingly fast. We think of the technological change necessary to avert it as fast-arriving, but unfortunately it is deceptively slow—especially judged by just how soon we need it.” Paul Barford stresses the same basic point: “I don’t think technology is going to save the day here. There isn’t going to be some tech waiting on the horizon and once that becomes cost-effective, suddenly we’re good.”

A more realistic option in the near term might come in the form of new infrastructure programs and industry regulation. Currently, Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary to recognize that the internet is essentially a utility that will very much be affected by the climate crisis. He is proposing to “build resilient, affordable, publicly owned broadband infrastructure” through $150 billion worth of infrastructure grants. Elizabeth Warren has also made a series of proposals that would empower municipalities, specifically in rural areas, to build their own public networks rather than relying on private telecom companies and internet service providers. She has recommended the creation of a federal Office of Broadband Access, which would oversee $85 billion worth of grants to communities to take on these infrastructure projects.

Other candidates, like Joe Biden, have similar proposals about building out rural broadband access and infrastructure, but Warren’s and Sanders’s plans are the most detailed and generous. Still, no one has done much work to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that the internet creates—no proposal to tax streaming, for example. 

Warren does tackle the industry side in a very broad way, with her plan to break up Facebook, Amazon, and Google. If her proposed regulations were to pass, the landscape of the internet would change dramatically, and the ad-tech empires and data-collection operations of these companies would no longer be so hegemonic. What impact this would have on the climate, specifically, has not been outlined by the Warren campaign, but it would necessarily limit the ability of giant tech corporations to use their clout to protect their polluting ways. “Breaking them up would make it easier to impose solid environmental regulations on tech companies,” said Tom Greenwood.

In many ways, the future of the internet is already here. You don’t have to imagine how some superstorm will wipe out power, clean water, and internet and phone service. This has all already happened. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, Goldman Sachs’s headquarters, located in a relatively vulnerable part of the Financial District in New York City, was protected by thousands of its own sandbags and backup power generators. Just a ferry ride away, in Red Hook, the power would remain off for weeks after the storm passed.

A few years earlier, Greta Byrum, who was working with the New America foundation at the time, launched a pilot program in Red Hook to construct a MESH network: a local intranet system built on the rooftops of homes in the area. “This little infrastructure was being held together by wire and string, and still ran after Sandy, when a lot of the major systems failed,” Byrum told me. “People did a lot of organizing, distributed supplies, and sent out emergency messages using the MESH network and Wi-Fi-enabled devices.”  

For Byrum, the lesson of MESH’s success is that vulnerable communities reliant on the internet need to become self-sufficient. New America has since trained Red Hook residents to build and maintain its still-growing network. Byrum also helped launch MESH in Far Rockaway, Gowanus, Hunts Point, East Harlem, and Sheepshead Bay—neighborhoods particularly susceptible to sea-level rise and extreme weather. These independent, small-scale networks are important, Byrum says, because they “enable people to stay in touch with their neighbors regardless of what’s happening in the wider world.”

Now at the New School’s Digital Equity Lab, Byrum continues to focus on infrastructural inequalities in the communication sector. She saw Sandy repeat itself in Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria in 2017, though on a larger, more horrific scale. It was “a case study in disaster capitalism,” she says. “They basically lost their entire communication infrastructure.”

Byrum says the issues raised by Maria revolve around core questions of political economy: “who owns infrastructure, and who should own it, and who makes the rules.” She adds, “People really felt after the storm that they were at the mercy of folks who didn’t have their best interests at heart. And so it sparked a conversation about decolonizing technology, communication infrastructure.” 

If you look at the margins, where the poor and the neglected live, you can see an early version of how climate change will make internet access even more unequal. But it’s also in these places where you’ll see innovation steering the net’s infrastructure away from the corporate quest for profit. Xiaowei Wang is already seeing this happen in rural China. “China has a huge amount of state control over the internet and these very tight restrictions on who even gets to put up a website,” she says. “Rural China is good at subverting that, creating a subculture that is very anti-government. And they’re doing it over live streaming platforms in China.” Her optimistic reading is that places like rural China offer an example of “indigenous innovation and a more free, more decentralized internet.” 

This internet might be slower, but it would also be more community-oriented and heterogeneous. “The global internet is fracturing,” Byrum says, “and maybe that’s not a bad thing, given the global internet is not governed in a coherent way.” What’s of vital importance to her is that people have more democratic control over their own piece of the internet. “What I’m talking about is building our own infrastructure and making choices about governance and design that are based on principles of equity and resilience. Communication systems are the nervous system of our culture and society, so let’s build them in a way where we feel and see and hear each other and be in relationship with each other.”

A more localized internet is something to root for. Maybe an internet owned and operated by the dispossessed and vulnerable could tackle the problems that the internet for the rich and comfortable could never address. The big, homogenous, world-consuming internet we know today is unsustainable. And if this network is going to have any chance of surviving, it has to be disrupted, destroyed, and broken down.