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Why Greenpeace is Wrong about the iPad
Alex Steffen, 30 Mar 10

Greenpeace has launched a new campaign warning about "Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change."

The cloud is growing at a time when climate change and reducing emissions from energy use is of paramount concern. With the growth of the cloud, however, comes an increasing demand for energy. For all of this content to be delivered to us in real time, virtual mountains of video, pictures and other data must be stored somewhere and be available for almost instantaneous access. That ‘somewhere’ is data centres - massive storage facilities that consume incredible amounts of energy.

Sounds scary, right?

Except when you actually look up the numbers. Computing accounts for a bit less than 3% of U.S. energy usage, according to Lawrence Livermore Labs. The global IT industry as a whole generates about 2% of global CO2 emissions.

Cars, on the other hand, which the vast majority of the people Greenpeace is trying to target also own, are the single largest contributor to climate change, according to NASA, exceeding all other sources in their impacts, and exceeding computing's global impacts by more than a factor of ten. Greenpeace (I'm a supporter) has made a lot of noise about computing's climate impacts, while the average commute or drive to the mall is likely far, far more a threat to the future than the average month's Google searching.

In fact, in some cases, that Google search can replace that trip to work or the mall. Technology can in fact greatly increase the efficiency of urban living, particularly car-free living in walkable neighborhoods as I wrote yesterday. Indeed, the same study Greenpeace is relying on finds that tech has as much capacity to cure as harm: "The Smart 2020 study also made a compelling case for ICT’s significant potential to deliver climate and energy solutions, estimating that ICT technologies could cut 7.8 GtCO2 of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a 15% reduction over business-as-usual projections."

It may pull hits to call the iPad a planet killer, but worrying about the right thing is generally a good caution. If Greenpeace really wants to get up in people's grill about something that needs to change, it should start with their cars.

PS: I'm a supporter of Greenpeace. And yes, they've mentioned cars in the past. That said, the fact the word "car" doesn't even appear on Greenpeace USA's front page is telling.

UPDATE: Quick note. Just got into a bit of conversation about Greenpeace's talking point on this, that "if it were considered a country, our collective computing carbon footprint would place 5th in world for energy use." I think it's misleading, almost to the point of dishonesty.

Parse the statement:

1) if it were a country -- immediately, in order to be a fair comparison, we'd have to know something about the ranking of national emissions, which, as it turns out, is quite different than the structure of emissions sources, so immediately we're into an apples and oranges comparison, if for no other reason that there are 212 nations, but only a small number of categories emissions sources.

2) our collective -- intentionally vague, perhaps, but for this talking point to be even vaguely true, it has to mean "global" which sounds less out of whack.

3) 5th in the world for energy use -- I still don't see how that number stacks up, but even granting its correctness, there are two problems: a) 5th in the world naturally makes people draw the association that it's the 5th biggest source of CO2, and b) "for energy use" is a completely arbitrary line, drawn apparently just to make computers seem a bigger part of the problem.

To be clear, emissions from dirty energy use in ICT manufacture/use is roughly the same magnitude of problem as emissions from cement manufacturing, or air travel, or landfill methane, or coal fires and gas flares. It's a problem, one we should fix, but this campaign makes it seem like it ought to be one of our top priorities, rather than way down the list after dealing with massive society-wide problems like transportation/land use, buildings, forestry and agriculture.

It all goes back to the point I made earlier about Comparative Measurements and Knowing Our Facts, that clarity counts, and intentionally muddying the waters to score the most temporary of small victories (if even that) is bad strategy and ultimately counter-productive.

C'mon, Greenpeace: you're better than this!

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Comments

Thanks Alex for adding a little perspective.

And let's do take a serious look at the "compelling case for ICT’s significant potential to deliver climate and energy solutions." There's huge potential opportunity there, for business as well as climate. For example: http://www.awarenessintoaction.com/article.php?url=Gil-friend-sustainability-IT-solutions


Posted by: Gil Friend on 30 Mar 10

IMHO, Greenpeace is wrong because nothing we do as individuals will make a difference until there is a price on carbon.

It's like telling people to stop drinking soda... you can get fat eating most things if you eat too much.


Posted by: Bill S on 30 Mar 10

Your point is quite valid.

OTOH Greenpeace may be indulging in a bit of market targetting: the generators of said cloud (hi, Larry) may be a little more receptive to making their 'farms' carbon neutral than your typical car maker.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 30 Mar 10

Sorry, but you are wrong on two counts:
1. It's not CARS that study was about but ROAD TRANSPORTSTION. That includes trucks and freight transport.
2. (it's actually NASA's fault) the emission of sulfates and other toxines in industry gas emission may be helpful in global warming. But they are not sustainable.


Posted by: Matthias on 30 Mar 10

Alex, just a couple of quick notes of correction here. The Inhabitat story erroneously claims that Greenpeace is saying that Cloud emissions, if a country, would rank as the 5th largest worldwide.

This is not true, as you point out, and is not something we said. However, what we have said in today's report is that global Cloud electricity usage is set to triple by 2020 to 1,953 billion kilowatt hours, and that this total, if a country, would currently rank as the 5th largest in electricity usage.

For perspective, this figure is also over half the current electricity consumption of the United States -- or more than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil -- combined. All of this information is in our press release (http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/press-center/releases2/does-the-ipad-launch-forecast) and sourced using the CIA World Factbook, 2007 data.

We also go out of our way to not frame, as you suggest we do, that the iPad is "a planet killer" (see http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/the-ipad-internet-climate-change-100329).

If you are game, I'm happy to continue this conversation on your blog about some of the larger points you make questioning the efficacy/priority of campaigning within the IT industry for climate leadership.


Posted by: Casey Harrell, Greenpeace International on 31 Mar 10

The report also points out that raising livestock is the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gas, something that most people would rather ignore, particularly in big meat-eating nations like the US and Australia.

Sorry, can't feed the world with meat.


Posted by: Tanuki on 31 Mar 10

'Cloud computing' means a lot of different things, although it appears that Greenpeace is focusing on the digital content delivery aspect of it. However, in principal, cloud computing introduces some other efficiencies besides the potential decrease in physical transportation needs.

Amazon, one of the front-runners in many different types of cloud computing, is a good case study. One service they offer is cloud-based storage, and cloud-based computing resources. This means you can create a 'virtual computer' in Amazon's cloud that you can access like it was your own physical server. But they do it in a sophisticated environment where they can adjust and tune the physical resources that back it. They do this in a way that basically pools the physical resources (CPU power, memory, disk space, etc.) and then allocates them to different virtual machines on an as-needed basis. Since not every virtual server needs all the memory and computing power allocated to it at every moment, this allows us to collectively leverage hardware much more efficiently. In fact, my friend at Amazon tells me that their cloud computing initiative basically started because they had extra hardware resources. They need a massive infrastructure to support all the eCommerce that takes place in November and December, but an enormous portion of that goes to waste the rest of the year. They realized that they could "rent out" their extra hardware resources and a cloud was born. Thus, many people and companies that use their cloud storage and cloud VM (virtual machine) services do so without incurring any of the additional environmental costs associated with building new hardware.

Of course Greenpeace isn't focusing on this aspect of cloud computing, but rather content delivery. The interesting question is what this cloud-based content delivery mechanism is replacing. To the degree that it is creating new demand for content that did not exist previously, I can see that it has an adverse impact on the environment (relatively small though it may be, as Alex points out). However, to the degree that it's replacing people driving to the video store, it's probably a net positive. To the degree that it's replacing people storing digital media on their own personal computers, rather than streaming it from a cloud service it's probably a net gain as well because less hardware and, I believe, less energy are required to store and provide access to one centralized copy of the media, than to store one copy for each person that wants access to it.

I don't know what real effect on the environmental bottom-line these last points have, but I don't think they can really be ignored...


Posted by: Ben Demboski on 1 Apr 10

I totally support that! Continue that way!


Posted by: PeterMeyers on 9 Apr 10

I totally support that! Continue that way!


Posted by: PeterMeyers on 9 Apr 10

I totally support that! Continue that way!


Posted by: PeterMeyers on 9 Apr 10

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Posted by: cxc10777777 on 20 Apr 10

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