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In the Race to Build a Renewably Powered Internet, Amazon, Netflix Lag Behind

Image Credit: Nate2B

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to manufacture and power our devices, data centers and infrastructural needs. And with an energy footprint accounting for approximately 7% of global electricity, the IT industry has an important role to play in the transition towards clean energy.

While Apple, Google, Facebook and newcomer Switch have established themselves as industry leaders, having already begun making strides towards 100% renewable energy, companies such as Netflix, Amazon Web Services and Samsung are falling short of the mark, according to a new Greenpeace USA report. Entitled Clicking Clean: Who is Winning the Race to Build a Green Internet? the report outlines the energy footprints of large data operators and nearly 70 of the most popular websites and applications.

“Amazon continues to talk a good game on renewables, but is keepings its customers in the dark on its energy decisions. This is concerning, particularly as Amazon expands into markets served by dirty energy,” said Greenpeace USA senior IT analyst, Gary Cook.

“Like Apple, Facebook and Google, Netflix is one of the biggest drivers of the online world and has a critical say in how it is powered. Netflix must embrace the responsibility to make sure its growth is powered by renewables, not fossil fuels and it must show its leadership here,” continued Cook.

The IT industry’s energy footprint accounted for 7% of global electricity in 2012, a number set to grow as global internet traffic increases, and even exceed 12% by 2017. Video streaming accounts for 63% of global internet traffic in 2015, and is projected to reach about 8-% by 2020, according to Cisco Network Traffic Forecast, 2016.

Greenpeace has benchmarked the energy performance of the IT sector since 2009, and is calling on all major internet companies to:

  • Make a long-term commitment to become 100% renewably powered.
  • Commit to be transparent on IT energy performance and consumption of resources, including the source of electricity, to enable customers, investors and stakeholders to measure progress toward that goal.
  • Develop a strategy for increasing their supply of renewable energy through a mixture of procurement, investment and corporate advocacy to both electricity suppliers and government decision-makers.

Nearly 20 IT companies have already committed to 100% renewable energy use. Switch — a new entry to this year’s report — is making the best progress transitioning its data center fleet to renewables through both procurement and aggressive advocacy. The company also provides detailed information on a facility level, including GHG, for its existing data centers in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, and makes an energy dashboard available to its customers that provides data on the energy footprint of its servers in the Switch facility for their own monitoring and reporting.

Netflix, on the other hand, isn’t exactly blazing clean energy trails. The multinational entertainment company has one of the largest data footprints of the companies profiled, accounting for one-third of internet traffic in North America and contributing significantly to the worldwide data demand from video streaming. The company announced in 2015 that it intended to fully offset its carbon footprint, but a closer examination reveals it is likely turning to carbon offsets or unbundled renewable energy credits, which do little to increase renewable energy investment.

For the first time, this year’s report also evaluates Asian companies including tech giants Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, and Naver, which are steadily expanding globally. The region is well behind the US market in renewable commitments, due in large part to fewer clean energy options from monopoly utilities.

“Leading tech companies in the US have shown that clean power can be both good for the environment and for business. East Asian companies must step up to embrace that reality as well,” said Jude Lee, senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.

The road to developing a fully renewably powered internet will be a long one, but for companies to adopt a 100% renewable commitment is an important first step. This commitment must be matched by concrete actions that demonstrate true leadership, taking successive steps in the same direction. Important progress is already being made in driving renewable energy investment in several markets, but barriers, such as markets dominated by traditional utilities with little to know renewable energy options, still exist and are driving a dramatic increase in the consumption of coal and natural gas.

In these markets, a greater focus on advocacy is needed to overcome the entrenched political power of the utilities and create a pathway for the rapid adoption of renewables. This will be crucial in the United States during the Trump administration, which has promised to roll back climate policies and revive the use of coal. Sustained and vocal advocacy by corporations, who recognize the ecological and economic imperative for an aggressive transition to renewable sources of electricity, has never been more important in the United States.

The Greenpeace report can be read in full here.


Libby MacCarthy is an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands, based in Maine and France. She is a former urban planner specializing in sustainable cities, and an urban farming and film photography enthusiast. She holds a BA in Environment, Society and… [Read more about Libby MacCarthy]