Green Clouds One Day

By Woody Chan 17 February, 2020

Did you know that even watching online videos is exacerbating our climate crisis? Where are brands in using more renewable energy? CWR's Chan reviews

Watching online videos is highly carbon intensive - by 2025 its GHG emissions could double to 612MtCO2e, which is be comparable to Australia's emissions; the worst emitter? Video streaming
BAT are lagging global peers - only one Chinese tech company (Chindata) has committed to 100% renewable energy, plus only 20% of Chinese tech co's disclose electricity use & GHG emissions
Meanwhile, FAAG are all on the way to 100% renewable energy; could they help rapidly developing markets grow not on coal but renewables with their PPAs as they expand to Asia?

Just ten years ago, words like “stream” or “cloud” had entirely different meanings. Now with the rise of iCloud, Netflix, YouTube and others, video streaming and cloud storage are now ubiquitous and essential to the ICT industry. However, as these online activities continue to boom, we need to start thinking about how water and carbon intensive they are. We have already been talking about this for some time, finding last year that streaming Netflix on HD for 4 hours in Australia could use an entire bathtub of water.

As we step into the Year of the Rat, would it be too much to ask for a greener cloud and streaming? After all, we have seen more reports and news in the past year highlighting this. Haven’t got time to read up on them? Read on for a quick review – from the dark side of our online video binges to what brands are doing (or not doing).

Online video binges have to end

Just 2 weeks ago Google finally disclosed YouTube’s share of their revenues – and it was huge. That is hardly surprising given just how much online video has taken over our lives.

By 2025 online videos will emit as much greenhouse gas as Australia…

…worst emitter: video streaming

According to a new report by French think tank the Shift Project, up to 60% of all global data traffic is for online videos and in 2018, this generated more than 306MtCO2e. That is as much as annual GHG emissions from Greece, New Zealand, Portugal and Ireland combined. What’s more, by 2025 this could double to 612MtCO2e, which is as much GHG emissions as Australia.

Which videos are the worst emitters? Video streaming (including Netflix, Amazon Prime etc.) came first, accounting for a third of online video emissions. Adult videos and “Tubes” were second and third

Given all this, brands really have to step up but we the consumers can take action as well. After all, each of us is also culpable by watching these videos. So what are some top tips to reducing our digital footprint? We are currently compiling this so watch this space!

Renewable transition – BAT lagging FAAG

One of the most important ways our internet can go green is by shifting from water and carbon-intensive thermal power to renewables. However, while Big Tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google (FAAG) have made various commitments to renewable energy, Chinese companies are lagging behind their global peers.

Except data centre operator Chindata, no other company in China has committed to 100% renewable energy

In Jan 2020, Greenpeace East Asia and the North China Electric Power University released their first-ever renewable energy ranking of China’s tech giants and found that except data centre operator Chindata, no other company in the study has committed to 100% renewable energy. What’s more, the study found that only 20% of the Chinese tech corporations disclosed electricity use and greenhouse gases emissions, compared to 80% of 16 mainstream global tech companies. Clearly disclosure needs to catch up as well.

The good news is that there is action in the right direction. In the first nine months of 2019, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent (BAT), Huawei, Chindata and GDS actively procured 400,000MWh of renewable energy, which is roughly equivalent to Beijing’s total power consumption for one day. This is positive but much more is needed.

China’s data centres = Austria + New Zealand’s GHG emissions by 2023 

The case for why BAT and other Chinese tech companies must step up was made in another Greenpeace report Powering the Cloud: How China’s Internet Industry Can Shift to Renewable Energy.

73% of electricity consumed by China’s data centres in 2018 was generated from coal…

 

…by 2023, China’s data centres’ GHG emissions = Austria + New Zealand

According to the report, 73% of electricity consumed by China’s data centres in 2018 was generated from coal. This is because the data centre industry is concentrated in areas where renewable energy comprises a relatively small portion of the electricity mix (e.g. Beijing, Zhejiang and Jiangsu) and so the industry’s rate of renewable energy consumption falls below the national average of 26.5%.

The report also estimated a 65.8% growth in electricity consumption for the industry in 2018-2023 – and this translates to a large increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By 2023, assuming that the electricity mix does not change, China’s data centres are set to emit 163MtCO2, equivalent to all the GHG emissions from Austria and New Zealand combined.

Google & Apple 100% renewable via PPAs – can Asia benefit?

With Amazon also committing in late 2020, FAAG are all on the way to 100% renewable energy. Facebook, Apple and Google are much further along – with Google having reached 100% in 2017 and Apple in 2018. But can they do more?

At the moment, Google and Apple are matching their data centre electricity consumption with renewable energy power purchasing agreements (PPAs). This is the most realistic way to reach “100%” as there is no grid that is 100% renewable and it’s not always possible to generate renewable energy on site.

As FAAG expand their operations into Asia, could they help rapidly developing markets grow not on coal but renewables with their PPAs?

However, a lot of the PPAs are in areas where renewable energy is already a big part of the electricity mix. Take Google for example, more than 90% of their PPAs are in the US or Northern Europe but none in Asia or South America where they also own data centres. As FAAG expand their operations into Asia, could they help rapidly developing markets like Indonesia or Vietnam grow not on coal but renewables with their PPAs?


Further Reading

  • YouTube: The Dark Side Of Going Viral – We are already addicted to the internet, YouTube, Netflix, apps and still forecasts show major growth. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan unwraps the darkside of our runaway data use
  • Electronic Brands: Sustainable Or Not? – The new CLSA U® report cautions that current brand strategies only focus on short-term profits despite looming risks. Is this sustainable? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan looks at what leaders like Apple & Samsung are doing across greening supply chains, recycling and more
  • Thirsty Clouds & Smartphones – Thought you were being more environmentally friendly by accessing emails online rather than printing them, think again! Check out how water thirsty & energy hungry our cloud addiction is
  • Toxic Phones: China Controls the Core – We review CLSA U®’s report which warns that transitional risks are abound as China says no to pollution and yes to a high tech future. What are the top-5 ‘bewares’? China Water Risk’s Debra Tan expands
  • China’s Renewable Energy Quotas – China is releasing its first ever renewable energy quotas along with Renewable Energy Power Certificates to improve trading; see what these mean for provinces & renewable enterprises with China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu

More on Latest

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  • How To Make Water Issues Matter To World Leaders – Except Singapore, no other leaders of any other country have shown sustained interest in water in the last 50 years. How can this paradigm shift? Global water gurus Biswas & Tortajada explore
  • Climate Fight: Finance As Asia’s Most Effective Weapon – Green finance is set to take off as regulations promote carbon pricing and better disclosure but Dr Ma and Huang also see gaps that need closing like integrating ESG factors in risk management
  • Dirty & Thirsty – Not Just A Paper Tiger – China is the world’s largest paper producer but the industry is a Top-3 polluter. Pollution crackdowns have led to cuts across provinces and water quality has improved. With rising enforcement, is this just the beginning?
  • Race For Water – Converting Plastic Waste To Energy – With most plastic waste fragmented into tiny particles, ocean clean-up is increasingly difficult. Enter Race For Water Foundation’s circular tech to transform 5-12t of plastic waste per day to energy. Their Rollin expands

Woody Chan
Author: Woody Chan
Woody conducts research on the water-energy-climate nexus and related hidden risks including rare earths and other critical raw materials essential to the clean tech and high tech industries. His analysis can be found in the 2017 CLSAU Blue Book on “Toxic Phones: China controls the core” which examines pollution driven regulatory risks of minerals behind the mobile interface from the touchscreen to vibrations & sound. Working on this nexus also led him to explore trade-offs with food security and agriculture in the region. Besides research, Woody also coordinates and manages CWR’s flagship monthly newsletter including the management of our extensive network of contributors and has interviewed many water luminaries on CWR’s behalf. Moreover, he oversees all content updates in CWR’s website.Born in Hong Kong, Woody graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2016 with a BA in Geography. Concerned with the extent and effects of wastewater discharge in China, the topic of his dissertation, he joined CWR upon graduation. Furthermore, Woody also leads education outreach for CWR. To date, he has given TEDx talks at Hong Kong Baptist University and Diocesan Boys School on water and climate risks. Additionally, he has been invited to be a keynote speaker at the KGV (ESF School) Alliance. In the longer term, he wants to help improve education in Hong Kong & Asia to account for water and environmental risks.
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