How can the Internet Help the Climate?

The climate is changing. Nature is declining at unprecedented rates. What projects and products are helping now? Looking ahead, How are 5G, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, zero lag time for videos and all the other inevitable developments going to help?


It can help gather concerned people together to form coalitions and projects that help. It connects creative people with solutions to a larger audience than they might otherwise have. Films like the incredible Our Planet stream on Netflix, which can jar people out of complacency.

But the amount of planet-warming electricity needed to power the Net could require as much as a fifth of all power generated. Already it is billions of kilowatt hours a year.

5G is clearly inevitable. What is going to stop it or even slow it down? Does the EU have a plan for that? 5G requires large increases in physical infrastructure. And it will create huge consumer conveniences, which will no doubt make it quite popular. Certainly along with all the home appliances “phoning home” with your data, remote medical procedures will become much more common, saving lives.

All this wonderfulness of the Tech of our Dreams Come True, even if the spying-on-consumers aspect wasn’t happening, which of course it is, goes on with a backdrop of what many scientists call “the sixth extinction” - though this time it is we, humanity, causing it.

So, yes we want a human-centered internet that respects and empowers us, but what if it is a net contributor to this die-off and climate change in general? Can the development of the Net, for better or worse, even be considered outside of this reality?

“EE” = energy efficiency

There is an excellent discussion of 'mesh nets’ going on in another topic here. I wonder if mesh nets can help with overall efficiency?

How come you don’t address the impact on health? I am not even looking at all the data available already which is, to put it mildly, very worrying. I have a friend who does the 5G implementation in Germany already now, they are laying out the infrastructure everywhere so obviously nobody will stop it. He says that technicians going up the 5G towers actually have a device which warns them when they have to come down urgently. The effects on those guys are incredibly harmful…it generates a field 100 times stronger than 4G. So what’s the point of me avoiding to use microwave if soon I will live in one?


Absolutely, let’s address the impact on health. 5G requires a big buildout in towers, especially with such dense demand augmented with all that IoT action. We’re swimming in radio waves. How much is too much? I know that there are a lot of alarmists out there on this subject, but I also know that there were several years when I wore my cell phone in my front jeans pocket and after some time I could feel that phone-sized rectangle in my leg even when the phone wasn’t there. And we know that it isn’t safe to live under high voltage electric lines. What about 5G?

Well I am not qualified to address its impact on health. I can just open my eyes and ears and listen to what professionals are saying about it. By Professionals I mean physicists interested in the field, doctors, military specialists who worked specifically on microwave frequency warfare etc…And I can just say what I hear from a person working on 5G implementation in Germany. If it’s so bad for them to just go on the tower and work up there for a short period of time, I cannot see how it will be fine for health to have it on 24/7.
And yes, apparently they need to have towers every 60-100 meters.

Plenty of discussion about it in US:

Here you can see they actually spent billions to develop and install the technology and they spent 0 Euros to actually study the effects on health…thats insane. When I manufacture a product in China and import to EU everything is checked for safety/health concerns, even type of plastic/paint etc and nobody is checking this…unbeliavable.

Here is some more questions raised by a person who knows more about it than me.

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Nice trio of videos there.

I live in a part of northern California where there is a lot of opposition to too much deployment of wireless technology. For 7 years I ran the local talk radio station and there were many programs about these dangers. And 5G had not even showed up yet.

So I heard a lot of experts and a lot of opinions all over the, er, spectrum of opinion. The best line I remember came from this doctor who ran a public health nonprofit who said, “distance is your friend.” So, if you have to put these little transmitters every few houses, that’s a problem.

I liked the middle video with the incredulous Senator who discovers that the health effects have not been studied at all. We hear about how AI, Internet of Things, robotics, real time remote operations are great and of course inevitable. But it all will run on 5G or something even more dense. It isn’t like nuclear radiation - but you still don’t want a lot of it going on right next to you.

I’d file this not under “tech helps” but under “tech doesn’t need to make it worse”: Chris Adams, currently a fellow at Prototype Fund at the Greenweb Foundation, has been doing a lot of work around energy consumption of web services and especially around mapping which providers in that space use renewable energies:

I’ve found that quite interesting. Slowly, a push is coalescing around the notion that we should demand our service providers and companies to go green so at least they’re not net negative contributors in this space.

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One of the goals of this NGI initiative is about “sustainability.” It is a little vague what they mean by that, although of course they want whatever gets made to be durable. But sustainable to me means it has to live within the context of the entire health of the planet itself. At this point in time, any new technology that does not work within that context is more part of the problem than the solution.

Or this - what is a human-centered internet going to do to help this? Spreading awareness, sure, but past that…?

"The apocalypse has a new date: 2048.

That’s when the world’s oceans will be empty of fish, predicts an international team of ecologists and economists. The cause: the disappearance of species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.

The study by Boris Worm, PhD, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, – with colleagues in the U.K., U.S., Sweden, and Panama – was an effort to understand what this loss of ocean species might mean to the world.

The researchers analyzed several different kinds of data. Even to these ecology-minded scientists, the results were an unpleasant surprise."

Here is a Rolling Stone story about the estimated carbon footprint from all the streaming, with some comparison to how much impact that creates compared to the amount of plastic used to make vinyl records and CDs.

The amount of that plastic has gone way down (from 61 million kilograms in the 2000s to about 8 million kilograms as of 2016), but at the same time the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere that can be fairly attributed to the amount of power required to serve all that streaming is huge and dwarfs that amount of plastic:" the amount of GHGs (greenhouse gases) generated by the energy needed to transmit music for streaming is estimated to be between 200 and 350 million kilograms." The story also cliams, " Data centers are reportedly responsible for about two percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a carbon footprint nearly equal to the airline industry."

Something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it does point out an inconvenient truth: streaming carries an environmental cost, even if it makes people feel like they are living more lightly on the earth by doing that instead of collective physical media. Indeed, it looks like worldwide, the carbon footprint of streaming is bigger than it ever was for physical media, and growing.


Very good point to raise awareness on. The problem is that we do not have a valid intuition for the carbon footprint of most modern activities or products. How could we work towards the development of such awareness and intuition?

Pretty hard to measure, and I think in the case of streaming vs owning or using physical media, it probably can’t be compared that accurately. But I see it similar to using an electric car. That power does’t come from nowhere. In the US, it means more oil and coal get burned for the electric grid. But that is not visible to the consumer. I suppose in countries like Denmark with such a large percentage of power coming from renewables (30% targeted for 2020), one shouldn’t worry about it so much. But, as always, there is still no free lunch.

Meanwhile, over in the US, where I am based, we have this to deal with. I am of the view that we have to get Trump and his gang out of office by any means possible because of their anti-science actions.

My view on it is 3 fold.

  1. Measuring climate and greenhouse gases - we will be able to better control our emissions if we know where they are happening and be able to make better predictions if we know what is happening in the climate today. We need to be able to transmit the data we collect around. You probably need to talk to the scientists and see how whether the internet is fit for purpose for that.

  2. Prediction of the climate. What are the changes we can make that have the most impact in avoiding more damage to the climate. Again finding out how scientists need to share and verify models and whether the internet fills those needs is a question for those in those professions.

  3. Control of electricity consumption. This is part of the promise of IoT and the thing I am interested in phloem. It is hard to turn off items remotely or monitor their use, wasting energy. It could also help with avoiding energy companies spinning up fossil fuel power stations based on projected demand if they could get projected usage from households.

I definitely think that the Internet can help the climate and approach the challenge - can it right now? Not sure.

Power consumption - I think is a pretty interesting concept for a potential scenario, that we as humans, like farming, could do and rely on natural systems and let them (e.g. solarpower) enable when things work, and when they don’t, for connection and availability from source, mainly to slow the pace down into something what we can handle.
5G - I’m curious if this is just increasing consumption of already yearly depleted natural resources or having any positive effects for tackling climate change - at all. More data, more transfer, more consumption - everything will drive a big increase of infrastructure needs and hundreds of millions of devices which will “need” to be thrown away and replaced due to their design for planned obsolesence.
Narrative - The current tech (industry) and culture (advertising) narratives keep us away from seeing the big challenges unfolding such as the sixth extinction, ecocide, chemicals threatening reproductive organs and more.

It’s quite interesting, what will it take on how to change these narratives? Human centric Internet to me might not be sustainable if I consider what the natural capital can handle. If all humans are to use the Internet, what are the absolute necessary need that humanity and natural resources can handle? I believe it’s basic text messaging and perhaps voice calls. Not sure ecosystems can handle (or need) much more until we’ve found ways for biologically renewable technology shaping our devices and renewable energy sources to provide all electricity needed?


In another topic here we are discussing ‘bloat’ on the 'Net and how inefficiencies create large amounts of data throughput that adds to the carbon footprint of the planet and increases the energy costs for the 'Net overall. It’s been said that the Internet today consumes as much energy as the airline industry. So if we, out of conscience, decide to stop all this flying and instead do a lot more video conferencing, then aer we part of the problem or the solution?

Meanwhile, I just saw this article from the MIT Press (thanks @natalia_skoczylas) about a recent University of Massachusetts study . It exposes what might be considered a kind of dirty secret about the Net and the power it consumes. One can nitpick around the details, but it does ‘raise the grain’ on an important and largely hidden reality:

In case anyone underestimates the magnitude of the obstacles, there is this bit from the Weather Channel, " Nearly 90 percent of Americans are unaware that there is a consensus within the scientific community that human-caused climate change is real and threatens the planet, a new report says.

According to the report published last week by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only 13 percent of Americans were able to correctly identify that more than 90 percent of all climate scientists have concluded that climate change is real.

The annual survey of 1,266 adults compiled in May and June failed to note that it is actually 97 percent of climate scientists that concur that human-caused global warming is happening.

The most common but incorrect response from the survey was that there is a 50 percent consensus among the scientific community that global warming is real and human-caused. One in four responded that they did not know."

Now I know that this is not Europe where the awareness is surely much higher, but this gets directly to the topic because a big chunk of these unknowing Americans are locked into their own bubbles, some of which are watching Fox News, which if you have not seen it makes RT seems almost objective, and many who just stay with what the social media algorithms tell them, along with whoever they hang out with. One example, my wife works for a railroad on the maintenance side of things. Some of the stuff her co-workers say and claim as truth causes me to check myself so I don’t burst out laughing sometimes because they are so out of sorts with any actual facts.

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Ok so I put together notes from a session on Impact Tech during techfestival in copenhagen last weekend. They are still not fully structured but there may be some food for thought in there:

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