Are Apps in Asia Killing the Planet?

Photo credit: Cristiano Betta @ Flickr CC BY 2.0
Why you need to know

'Without key policy changes, the rapid growth of the internet in East Asia will likely be powered by coal and other dirty sources of electricity,' Greenpeace says.

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Internet companies in Asia are falling behind their North American counterparts in powering their energy-hungry data centers with renewable electricity and governments across the region are partly to blame.

Google, Apple, Facebook and eBay have been using their influence to gain access to renewable energy sources from utilities and governments, and are progressing towards their commitment to use 100 percent clean energy. However, in Asia, the world’s biggest source of carbon emissions, the internet’s rapid growth looks set to be powered by coal and other non-renewable resources, according to a new report from Greenpeace.

“The lack of access to a renewable energy from monopoly utilities is a major obstacle toward creating a renewably powered internet in this region,” Greenpeace says in a new 102-page report, which ranks companies on the source and transparency of their energy use, current policies and commitments, energy efficiency, renewable procurement and advocacy.

Greenpeace began benchmarking the energy performance of the IT sector in 2009, but this year’s report is the first time the organization has included analysis of Asia’s internet giants like China’s Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, and South Korea’s Naver. Asia’s poor performers include the world’s largest retail platform Alibaba – it has claimed on its peak shopping day in 2014 it processed a staggering 278 million orders – which has no publicly available information on its energy use or greenhouse gas output. Alibaba chairman Jack Ma has advocated for climate change measures but Greenpeace found no evidence the company has made efforts to promote the use of renewables. Baidu, which handles about 80 percent of internet searches in China, was likewise opaque in detailing its energy use.

“Among emerging Chinese internet giants such as Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, the silence on energy performance still remains,” Greenpeace says. “Neither the public nor customers are able to obtain any information about their electricity use and CO2 target.”

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Policy factor

Greenpeace is pushing for companies in Asia to follow the example shown by several of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech players but it does note the difficult policy environment constraining the ability of Asian companies to independently source renewable electricity.

“Without key policy changes, the rapid growth of the internet in East Asia will likely be powered by coal and other dirty sources of electricity,” the report says.

While China has increased electricity sourced from renewables to more than 24 percent, Greenpeace says there is no market mechanism to meet a company's requests for renewable energy – other than installing solar panels or wind turbines at or nearby its own facilities. “Investment in renewable energy plants, such as those recently made by Apple in China is a workable but less direct option,” the organization says.

Taiwan is home to some of the world’s major technology companies. Google and others want to power their data centers in the country with renewable energy but face a monopoly market run by state-owned utility, Taipower, the report says.

“Taipower relies heavily on imported energy for power generation with dependency on energy imports as high as 97.6 percent, with most of the generation mix heavily dependent on fossil fuels,” Greenpeace says.

However, Taiwan’s parliament today passed fresh electricity law reforms. The law amendments include a swathe of market deregulation measures and Greenpeace’s local staff say the changes may have a huge impact on energy transformation in the country.

Meanwhile, the monopoly electricity provider in South Korea has a generation mix with only 1.1 percent renewable electricity, with fossil fuel and nuclear power representing over 90 percent of its generation mix. This means that Naver, the first Asian company to commit to 100 percent renewable energy, cannot buy renewable-generated electricity via the market.

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The future is video

The report makes particular note of the energy use associated with video streaming. Video accounted for more than 60 percent of global internet traffic in 2015, and is projected to reach 80 percent over the next three years. Of the major video streaming sites, only YouTube and Amazon Prime receive passing grades from Greenpeace.

The organization is putting particular pressure on Netflix, which alone already accounts for more than one-third of North America’s peak internet traffic; it has started a public campaign to lobby the company to improve its performance.

“Unlike other major video streaming platforms such as Apple, Facebook, or Google, Netflix does not regularly provide energy consumption data, greenhouse gas emissions, or the actual energy mix of its global operations,” Greenpeace says. “The reality is that Netflix’s rapid growth is increasing demand for coal and other dirty sources of energy that are a threat to human health and the climate. Hopefully, Netflix will soon take greater responsibility and apply itself, as other sector leaders have, to drive more renewable energy onto the grid to power its operations.”

The IT sector is estimated to already account for about 7 percent of global electricity demand; the figure is expected to grow amid a rising world population and the rapid expansion of digital devices.

“If data centers and other digital infrastructure are 100 percent renewably powered, our increasing reliance on the internet can actually accelerate our transition to a renewably powered economy,” Greenpeace notes. “But, if our growing digital infrastructure is built in the opposite direction, locking us into a dramatic increase in the demand for electricity from coal and other dirty sources of energy that are changing our planet’s climate, it will be far more costly and take an unnecessarily longer time to reach a renewably powered economy.”

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Editor: Olivia Yang

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