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The Internet and Environmental Impacts

5 Dec 2022

This week the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) holds the E-Impact workshop on the environmental impact of Internet applications and systems. This impact is of course complex, since the Internet has both environmental costs and environmental benefits. The workshop will consider if there is something that we as technologists, and standards makers, can do to reduce these costs or increase the benefits.

IAB workshop on environmental impacts

The Internet runs on systems that require energy and raw materials to manufacture and operate. It is incumbent on the Internet industry to ensure that this use of resources is minimized and optimized. But the Internet can also act as an enabler for improvements in the rest of the society, such as allowing virtual interaction to replace physical travel. Or, it can also increase consumption of physical goods, for instance, through easing commerce.

The workshop starts with the input from 27 position papers submitted by the participants, covering a diverse set of topics. The goals of the workshop are two-fold. First to improve our understanding by making it possible for a set of experts from diverse fields to talk to each other and better understand the issues. And second, to find out if there are beneficial guidelines or areas of technology/research that we can recommend be further explored in the IETF, Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), or elsewhere.

We look forward to these discussions! Some of our own early observations include:

  • There is momentum on this topic, given the increasing awareness of global heating, rising energy prices, and business demand across many fields.
  • It is very important to have an accurate understanding of what the environmental impacts are (including greenhouse gas emissions from use, and embodied carbon from manufacture) and what the breakdown of those impacts is within the overall system. This allows us to understand what actions would have the biggest impact—and what actions might seem appealing but would have little practical impact.
  • The topic is broad, covering the entire Internet ecosystem end-to-end, from the communications to the devices, applications, data centers, etc. Our treatment of the topic can also be approached from multiple angles, ranging from technology to economics or societal issues.
  • It is useful to understand that improvements can also be of very different forms. A protocol designer tends to think about protocol changes, but changes in hardware, software implementations, use of clean energy sources, and so on are also important.

Participation in IAB workshops is by invitation only, but recordings of the discussions are made available afterwards, along with a written report of the discussions and conclusions. The input position papers are already available on the workshop page, and the other material will be

linked from there after the workshop. Presentation materials will be available on the IETF Datatracker.

We hope for some interesting and productive discussions over the coming week!

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