By IAN McKAY
Today’s monthly newsletter from Creative Carbon Scotland poses some interesting questions. “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency: the planet is in crisis and we are in the midst of a mass extinction event,” the organisation writes. Creative Carbon Scotland is set to join more than 60 organisations and practitioners from the cultural sector in declaring a climate and ecological emergency under the Culture Declares Emergency umbrella tag. But wait! Let’s think about this for a second.
As stated on their website, Creative Carbon Scotland started a journey in 2011 to embed environmental sustainability within the arts and cultural sector in Scotland: “From aiming to help arts organisations to report their carbon emissions – no small task in itself but one which is well under way,” they are now focusing on “exploring the sector’s role in transforming our society to address climate change.” And yet… How is this information delivered and what are the implications of our online interactions concerning climate change / catastrophe in relation to this? Can the global impact of online communication in the cultural sector really be quantified? and, in Creative Carbon Scotland’s case, Has this been considered as part of the charitable organisation’s own online activities?
If you are reading this blog post now, you are – I’m guessing – doing so on either a mobile device, a laptop, or a desktop computer, but the information supply chain that brings it to you, much like Creative Carbon Scotland’s information supply chain, is actually quite complex, and is rarely considered – Perhaps I should explain.
For those who have the impression that much of what Art North magazine does in terms of our technology and hardware use is much like any other climate-change-aware organisation, the truth might actually be quite different in our case. We have attempted to quantify what our impact is in terms of our carbon footprint. The complexity of the many ways we seek to get our message out to you is something that I don’t think we've actually said much about however, and I’ll be the first to hold my hands up and say that it is a tricky thing to do.
As an Internet user who reads a lot of blog, news, and online magazine articles about sustainability and ethical energy usage (as well as arts and culture information), I find myself frequently curious about the amount of energy we each use in producing and consuming what we do online. I often wonder about the sustainability of online projects that promote low-fi, low-energy, low emission information exchange in particular, however. Are they really practising what they preach? Is Art North? Is Creative Carbon Scotland, even? and How ethical are any of us in this regard? Rarely are end users told about the ‘back end’ of an organisation’s efforts to spread the word online with regard climate change.
In the North West Highlands of Scotland, I have been investigating for some time whether or not it is possible to produce a near-100% clean-energy, renewables-powered website? In other locations, I have done that, researching and implementing a near-100% renewables-powered site, hosted by a service that also uses an incredibly low-impact server setup to reduce their emissions – Have you ever considered how much energy web-servers use and how much heat they produce? Believe me… They produce a lot!
That is why, for the Art North website and our online activities currently, we chose a hosting provider that runs on 100% 'clean-energy' off-site. To do that (and I have researched many providers to find one) Art North’s website is hosted in New York City by a web host that serves our web pages to you the reader (and yes, I really did have to go that far afield to find a hosting service operating an ethical energy policy, or even one that was aware of how such a policy might be formulated with regard the impact of its servers).
Previously, online projects that I have developed have been powered in the UK by an electricity company actively building renewable energy sources, so every time I switched on the hardware, or flicked a switch in the office, the money that we spent on the energy we consumed was invested, I was assured, in renewable energy. That may seem pretty cool if you believe the claims made by the utility provider, I guess, but it comes with a downside too. Unlike the message delivered by Creative Carbon Scotland today, nothing is ever quite that simple. There is a lot that is beyond our control, and particularly when it comes to third party and ‘information bridging services’ that are important for the dissemination of information – social media providers being an obvious example.
With regard our chosen web host at Art North magazine, by comparison other web/domain hosts that I looked at were over 20 times less efficient than the hosting provider we currently use, and none in our locality even knew the size of their carbon footprint. Our current hosting provider, conversely, purchases clean energy in two different ways: to power their offices in the USA they use ConEdison's 100% clean energy option, but they also buy RECs to cover the complex power needs of their data-centre (slightly more complex but a move in the right direction, albeit a topic around which there remains some debate). Nonetheless, I have previously aimed to get as close to a near-100% Green-e certified online setup as is practicable.
The reason I raise this now is that Creative Carbon Scotland has put it at the front of my mind again with today’s newsletter, but I also think it is important that you, our readers, are aware that you are looking at a website now that is using as much clean energy as is possible for our location, as well as being served from New York City using 100% renewable energy, too. Of course, I’m not pretending that we’re getting it all right, or even able to given the choices available, and there are domain providers and other third parties that Art North does business with, over whom we have little influence, as stated, but where we can, we think we are heading in the right direction.
I’m deeply concerned about the message coming from Creative Carbon Scotland, however. This morning I was minded to look into this a little deeper, therefore. Firstly, I notice that the link I provide above was served to me from Creative Carbon Scotland (i.e. to the Culture Declares Emergency website) and points to a ‘Google Sites’ presence that carries the tagline: “Made with the new Google Sites, an effortless way to create beautiful sites.”
The Estonian artist Ivar Veermäe has created a substantial body of work with regard Google’s data centres, server estates, and energy consumption, though. While Veermäe’s work concentrates primarily on data collection, rather than serving, and his primary concern relates to ‘Big Data’ collection, the substantial impact that sever centres such as Google’s have on the environment cannot be ignored when viewing his installation works. In his installations ‘Centre of Doubt #1’ (Kasseler Kunstverein, Kassel, Germany, 2015), and ‘Centre of Doubt #2’ (an Artistic Research Project carried out between 2013 - 2018), the climate impact of Google’s data centres is clearly visible.
Veermäe seeks to “provide insight into the complicated and somehow opaque nature of the topic of data centres and telecommunication technologies,” he says. On the one hand, he investigates “the materiality and the local circumstances of the infrastructure,” while, on the other, he seeks to “offer an alternative visual representation on the issues connected to information technology, which are mainly presented as ‘cloudy’ rhetoric and visuals found in advertisements; science-fiction-like images; or overdriven military language.”
In Veermäe’s video installation ‘Crystal Computing (Google Inc., St. Ghislain)’ (Full HD video, 09:19 min, 2014 – see above), his installation took the form of an investigation into Google's data centre in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium – the largest Google data centre in Europe and the second largest in the world. “According to the latest official information from Google Inc., it currently houses 296,960 servers,” which, you’ve probably guessed already, means a lot of energy consumption and a high output of emissions. For most of us in Europe, this murky world remains hidden in rural Belgium while we interact online, and Google is simply part of the terrain we navigate our digital landscape with.
But why would Creative Carbon Scotland choose to promote Culture Declares Emergency, a web presence that is likely served to its European audience from the very data centre in Saint-Ghislain that, as Ivar Veermäe highlights, is as a prime offender, not just in terms of data monopoly, but in terms of carbon emissions and global pollution, also?
Indeed, has Creative Carbon Scotland calculated its own impact in terms of the emissions that their own web/domain host publishes? I am guessing not, although I could be wrong. I guess not, though, because today I spent some time discussing the availability of such data on carbon emissions with Creative Carbon Scotland’s web host myself. I first asked for information that does not appear on their ‘About us’ pages: “Can you direct me to a policy statement or something similar that outlines your commitment to energy efficiency as a provider of domain hosting services?” The recipient of my enquiry seemed bemused and then confused. Why would I need that information?
Posing as a potential customer, I added: “It is important that I choose a hosting company with a commitment to energy-efficiency. Is this information something that you can provide to customers?” The answer I received was that they (i.e. Creative Carbon Scotland’s web host and domain provider) cannot provide that information because; “We do not have such information about energy-efficiency.” I was then directed to their Terms & Conditions for customers, which nowhere addressed my query, and the representative ended the conversation.
All I really want to know here, and what I want to ask Creative Carbon Scotland, is; Have they calculated and quantified the data server energy usage of their web host, and the carbon emission impact that this represents? I would also like to know why they are using a web/domain host that appears not to have any freely available information on the energy efficiency of its servers and whether they are powered by renewables, or not. While I cannot pretend for a moment that I have investigated this in depth, or made an exhaustive search for the information referred to hear, I would like to know whether Creative Carbon Scotland has.
Creative Carbon Scotland’s newsletter today states (under the headline Declaring Emergency):
School children are striking at the state of their future, people all over the world are rebelling to avoid extinction and councils are declaring emergency. We must act fast. Humans are capable of responding in a remarkable variety of ways to accelerate climate solutions and adaptations, and at Creative Carbon Scotland we have experienced through our work how culture can help stir up human response, create new stories and visions for our world, bring people together and offer new ways of working to make them a reality.
Let’s hope they are correct, but let’s also hope that in the interest of transparency Creative Carbon Scotland respond to the challenge of providing clear information on their own server-side emissions. Otherwise there is a risk of seeing their efforts as pretty empty, rather than a proactive call to arms going out to everyone in the cultural sector who is concerned about climate change and the real effects of our online communications.
Note: I have now attempted to contact Creative Carbon Scotland on five separate occasions, but nobody was available to take my call. I will update this post should I be able to make contact with somebody at Creative Carbon Scotland who can answer the questions I have posed above. In the meantime, those questions remain pressing as the organisation continues its online campaign to raise awareness of climate change and the role that the cultural sector can play.