Save Yourselves

Which of Your Favourite Apps and Websites Are the Worst for the Environment

Facebook and Google: actually relatively good. Netflix: not so much.

by Antonella Di Biase
01 October 2019, 8:56am

Illustration by Davide Bart. Salvemini

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

It seems like humanity is constantly hopping from one ecological catastrophe to the next.

We talk about polluters, and we shift from the aviation and transportation industry, to intensive animal farming, to corporate or political greed. But there are other big polluters out there that haven't had their moment in the spotlight. The internet, for example, might inform you about all these ecological catastrophes, but it also has a massive impact on the environment itself.

While this has been researched extensively, no one seems to be talking about using Instagram, Netflix or Spotify less in the same way we're saying no to plastic straws and bottles.

The ICT sector on the whole – everything from mobile phone networks to your television – is on the same emission level as the global aviation industry, which is to say: it contributes over 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s difficult to definitively calculate the environmental impact of entire sectors, since there are complex factors some studies consider and others don't. Should TV be included or not? And what about the impact of the extraction of coltan in the Congo, a fundamental component in the production of microchips? But as an example, and for an understanding of how we can act, look no further than the object you're probably holding in your hand right now.

"Our smartphones and other digital devices have a significant impact on the planet throughout their lifecycle – from manufacturing to the end of their life," Gary Cook, a spokesperson and head of IT sector research for Greenpeace, told me in an email. "We need IT companies to clean up their supply chain and design products in a way that enables this incredible investment of the earth's resources to last as long as possible – and ultimately to be reused, rather than dumped."

In other words: we should be able to avoid throwing our phone out just because there's a new model, or because repairing it would cost more than buying a new one.

Next to the life cycle of electronic devices, another highly polluting factor in the industry is the data centres hosting clouds, social platforms and search engines. Here, the environmental impact is linked to the sources supplying electricity needed to support and cool down the servers. To avoid this issue, Facebook has moved some of its servers to Polar latitudes, while Microsoft has been trialling burying its servers in the depths off the coast of Scotland. Apple says it's globally powered by 100 percent renewable energy by building, among other things, an empire of solar panels in Cupertino.

In February of this year, a Greenpeace research group led by Gary Cook published a report on Data Center Alley in northern Virginia, the area with the biggest collection of data centres in the world. Also known as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, this area burns through a monstrous amount of energy, 95 percent of which is obtained from fossil fuels. Data Center Alley hosts 70 percent of the IP addresses of the cloud computing giant Amazon Web Service (AWS), which supports a large number of businesses and platforms we use every day.

"In general, access to renewable energy varies from company to company, and where their data centres are located," Cooke explained. "But for Amazon, and specifically for AWS – which is the profit engine of the entire company – they are not constrained by resources or geography. The mandate from the top has been to grow as fast as you can, and to not pay for anything you don't absolutely have to. Amazon/AWS at first was reluctant to make a commitment to move to renewable energy, but ultimately did so in 2014."

Cook claims that AWS later walked away from that pledge. "They went through a rapid period of expansion in Virginia and elsewhere without a supply of renewable energy," he said. In mid-September, however, Jeff Bezos announced his renewed commitment to Amazon's total conversion to renewables.

Gary Cook is one of the researchers behind ClickClean, a site evaluating internet giants based on their use of renewable energy sources – also taking into account factors like transparency, efficiency and advocacy. According to data from 2017, apps linked to Apple, Facebook and Google are all top of the class. Amazon, Netflix, Twitter and Soundcloud, on the other hand, still mostly use energy sourced from fossil fuels. According to the report, they also have serious transparency issues.

While Google made data on its carbon footprint public in 2011, other companies in the industry aren't so candid. "This is something companies should be providing to us as users," Cook said. "On Netflix, for instance, we have some data points on video streaming in our 2017 ClickClean report, and we will amend our take on the company when we publish our update later this fall. They make us work for it. They run on AWS."

Video streaming represents a consistent part of data traffic, and could be regulated with greater attention. Netflix, in particular, takes up 15 percent of global traffic, according to a report by Sandvine. That's four percentage points higher than YouTube, which is why Greenpeace has launched the petition "Tell Netflix to go green" – so that, after improving the way we watch TV, it can improve the state of the world by converting to renewables.

So even if you've stopped flying entirely, you cycle to work and don't eat meat or dairy, you might still be contributing to the climate crisis by reading this on your phone or laptop. Of course, we could all log off more often than we currently do. But we could also start using apps that automatically unsubscribe us from useless newsletters – which are also surprisingly bad for the environment – and search engines that plant trees, like Ecosia.

Basically, we can make sure we use the internet for good: to sign petitions and to support activists fighting for the right to repair, for example. And, of course, to get collectively and try to convince our political leaders to take action on climate change.