UNHRC_Eric Bridiers|

Sustainability and digital rights: how they’re connected and what that means for our work

As the world meets for the United Nations (U.N.) Climate Action Summit in New York, we want to take this opportunity to reflect on how our actions, both online and off, impact the global climate crisis. From e-waste to cryptocurrency mining, tackling the climate crisis requires business, government, and civil society leaders across the globe to critically examine the environmental impact of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs).

(1) Access [to the sustainable internet] Now!

U.N. SDG9.C calls for universal and affordable internet access to developed countries by 2020. With 2020 a mere three months away, the future — particularly for developing countries — is looking dark. According to the International Telecommunications Union’s Information and Communications Technology Development 2017 Index, as of 2017, 82.85% of households in developed countries have access to the internet, compared to a mere 40.43% of households in developing countries. People need internet access to document the environmental impacts on their communities and exercise their rights. Therefore, governments must do more to extend open, secure, and affordable access to the internet.

Universal, open, and secure internet connectivity is essential to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Connecting people to the internet is fundamental in ensuring access to this century’s platform for expression, communication, information, innovation, and wealth creation. Yet initiatives like Global Connect call us to consider what kind of internet people are being connected to. Will the internet in 2020 support innovation and the free flow of information, or will it be censored, blocked, or even shut down completely? The spotlight on the intersection between ICTs and sustainable development further casts light on the importance of not only access to the internet, but access to an environmentally sustainable internet.

An environmentally sustainable internet is long past due. In recent years we’ve seen that ICTs have not automatically solved critical environmental issues, such as climate change. On the contrary, ICTs are actively contributing to the adverse effects on the Earth’s natural resources and climate change. In order to halt the catastrophic effects of climate change, we must hold corporations accountable for their environmental impact. Last week, 2,000 employees at Google signed a pledge to take action to fight climate change at Google. Google workers organized within a broader climate action movement across the tech sector — including workers from Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter — to address the adverse impact of the climate crisis in the tech industry.

Further research suggests that developing countries are hit the hardest with the effects of climate change. We must not only push for access to the internet, but examine and mitigate the environmental impacts of ICTs operating around the world, particularly in developing countries.

Already, ICTs account for more than two percent of global carbon emissions. As Michael J. Oghia puts it, “with more data comes more energy consumption”; worst-case estimates show ICTs using more than half of the world’s energy by 2030. Renewable sources of energy data centers are urgently needed. But renewable energy is only a small part in addressing ICTs’ carbon footprint.

In addition to gobbling up electricity, data centers produce heat. Locating servers in colder parts of the world, so servers can be air cooled, is a popular solution with a “fossil-free” tagline. In chilly Scandinavia, data center heat is being recycled to warm people’s homes. But to be universal, the internet must reach folks in warmer climates more efficiently. So, to the extent that governments mandate data localization, they may be encouraging developments that imperil human rights like the right to privacy, and unnecessarily tax the environment with heat-producing servers. Our leaders must instead envision and enact policies that protect and promote both digital rights and the environment.

(2) No e-waste!

ICTs are the fastest growing source of physical waste and greenhouse gas emissions, dubbed “e-waste.” The expansion of the internet has spurred the production, consumption, and disposal of computers, mobile phones, networking devices, and energy, causing adverse effects on the Earth’s natural resources. 

But the environmental footprint of ICTs extends beyond the obvious.

At our most recent RightsCon conference in Tunis, a talk on land and labor in the digital world narrowed in on the issues surrounding precision agriculture. Precision agriculture refers to the remarkable speed at which AI technology is supplanting traditional harvesting techniques on farms. Drones and robots are replacing farmers, and data-driven algorithmic decisions about where to plant, how much water to use, the volume of fertilizer, and the amount of chemicals to apply. Such technology requires an immense amount of energy consumption and has labor implications for farmers worldwide. While there are indications that use of AI in the agricultural context may be a net positive, it is a complicated issue that requires careful ongoing evaluation and analysis.

Other technological innovations, such as cryptocurrency, consume vast amounts of energy through cryptocurrency mining processes that require comprehensive computing resources. For example, a 2018 scientific research study estimated that “Bitcoin mining will use 0.5% of the world’s resources by the end of 2018.” For comparison, this research further indicates that such mining practices exceed the net power consumption of certain countries, such as Ireland and Austria. Importantly, in the pursuit of lowering costs, most cryptocurrency miners seek to conduct operations in areas with low electricity costs and weakened environmental policies. Therefore, operating in developing countries is an appealing option for such practices, often with dire environmental implications on the local communities.

(3) Protect environmental defenders!

Environmental defenders – those fighting for climate justice, opposing land grabbing, extractive industries, and large-scale development projects – are alarmingly subject to attacks, both online and off. These defenders rely on the internet to advocate for their causes. Yet they are the most at risk of being surveilled and vilified online, only to face physical attacks and even assassination. Take, for instance, the story of Berta Cáceres, a prominent environmental activist who was surveilled, harassed, and eventually murdered for her “battle against a hydroelectric dam project on sacred Lenca territory in Honduras.” Rather than exceptional, such murders of environmental defenders have doubled over the past 15 years.

The consequences of the climate crisis are universal and interconnected. We as a global society rely on environmental defenders to disseminate the truth and fight against misinformation. Consider the movement of data activists who backed up the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data prior to U.S. President Donald Trump’s election. With skepticism surrounding global climate change heating up – now, more than ever – we must protect environmental defenders fighting to preserve and disseminate scientific and qualitative research regarding climate change.

(4) Building a sustainable future, together

Yet just as we hold our adversaries to account, we must consider our own environmental footprint on an individual and communal level. Public convenings – yes, even RightsCon –  are important venues for advancing human rights, but can also contribute to high production of food waste, energy consumption, and carbon emissions. As we recently announced, our upcoming 2020 RightsCon summit will be held in Costa Rica, a biologically diverse region that continues to inspire us to reflect on our role and responsibility in a time of climate crisis. As we plan for RightsCon 2020 in Costa Rica, we’re expanding existing partnerships and forging new connections with members of the environmental movement to build a more sustainable future, together. To contribute to this discussion, check out our latest RightsCon blog post.


Note: this post was updated on 01/21/2020 to correct for inadvertent inaccuracy.