We have known about climate change for a very long time. The science behind the greenhouse effect was first discovered in 1824 by French physicist Joseph Fourier and the effect of burning fossil fuels was debated as early as 1966 in leading industry publications like the Mining Congress Journal. In 1982, when atmospheric carbon levels where still at relatively save 340ppm, 350ppm was described as the safe upper limit by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen in 1988, fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobile made fairly accurate predictions about global warming, predicting that carbon dioxide levels would rise to 418ppm in 2019. Last year we reached 415ppm for the first time.
While we knew quite a lot for a very long time, climate science only broke into mainstream consciousness when the IPCC released it’s report early October 2018 and climate movements like Friady’s for Future, Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion began to sound the alarm.
Yet, the main focus of conversation and reporting was on fossil fuel companies themselves, on investment companies who financed the fossil fuel industry, on governments who still heavily subsidised carbon emitting corporations, related industries like aviation and construction and the news media, who still largely fails to accurately educate the public about what scientists are predicting and what is being done to prevent it.
[include_blockquote style=1] Scientists predict data centres to contribute up to 14% of greenhouse gases by 2040 [/include_blockquote]
Far less light was shone on industries like the internet, who’s enormous consumption of electricity keeps fossil fuel burning energy providers in business. While there was a lot of focus on e.g. aviation and the emerging phenomenon of flight shame, not much is being talked about our browsing habits and data consumption. Yet, the internet is as big of a polluter as aviation and with our increasing need to store large amounts of data and the growing amount time we spent online, CO2 emissions emitted by data centres are expected to increase significantly over the coming years.
At present, the internet is emitting about the same amount of carbon dioxide as aviation and shipping, contributing to about 2.5% of global emissions. But scientists predict data centres to contribute up to 14% of greenhouse gases by 2040. In 2016 the internet consumed already far more energy than Britain and while there were only about 500.000 data centres in 2012, the number increased to over 8 Million last year.
So, how do things look like when it comes to building websites? How can you contribute as web designer or as website owner to divesting from fossil fuels? Well, the first thing to look at are the web hosting companies. and their data centres. Where do they get their electricity from? How efficient are they? What is their position on climate change?
When I began researching hosting providers, I started with the company that I used myself for years, which has been recommended as one of the top three web hosting companies by WordPress, the CMS that I am working with:. Just a few month ago Siteground began moving their data centres to Google Cloud, one of the top three cloud computing providers. Other large providers are Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Some of them claim to be carbon neutral already. Google for example declared in 2017 that they achieved 100% renewable energy. Microsoft recently announced that it aims to be carbon negative by 2030.
However while such announcement sound great, it usually means that these companies are still using electricity that has been produced by burning fossil fuels. While declaring to be 100% renewable, Google’s real sustainable energy consumption only made up 56%. 14% came from natural gas, 15% did still come from coal and another 10% from nuclear power plants, according to Greenpeace’s click clean report from the same year as Google’s 100% renewable statement.
In order to claim to be fully sustainable, most companies actually have to rely on purchasing RECs (Renewable Energy Certificates), in the US or REGO (Renewable Guarantees of Origin) certificates in the UK. These are artificially made up units that can be sold by renewable energy providers. Whoever buys them is financially supporting the green industry. This is more or less the same like offsetting your fights. You emit CO2 into the atmosphere but in order to feel like being climate conscious, you get a company to plant a tree somewhere else. Some argue that these are sound practices others call it greenwashing.
While such certificates are certainly a positive additional stream of revenue for renewable energy providers that allows them to grow their market share, the only thing that really helps reducing emissions, is to stop burning fossil fuels. In his paper ‘Degrowth’, Jason Hickel, a British anthropologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, explained that since electricity demand is increasing overall, the percentage at which renewable energy is growing, is by far not enough to reduce global carbon emissions. In fact, last year’s Emissions Gap Report shockingly revealed that we are nowhere near reducing greenhouse gasses, but instead are still steadily increasing carbon output. As opposed to reducing g;obal emissions, we increased output by about 2.7% in 2018, after a 1.6% increase in 2017.
And while some of what large companies are able to do because of their size and capital, like developing AI to increase data centre efficiency and moving data centres to cooler climates in order to keep energy consumption low for cooling server farms, is very positive, there are also disturbing news that some of these large providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google are actively supporting and funding the fossil fuel industry and climate denying interest groups.
So, if you care about the climate, it might be a good idea to start checking out the green credentials of your website hosting company as well. In the coming weeks I will do more research into some smaller hosting providers, some who claim to be running exclusively on wind energy. To get started on reviewing your own website hosing, do a quick check with the Green Web Foundation’s website checker. If it returns a grey badge call your provider and ask what they are doing about switching to renewable energy. And if you feel that they are not really green and don’t really sound that they are on the ball, you might want to make some preparations to move your website somewhere else.