Climate Discourse in Internet Standards Organizations

Information and communications technology (ICT) has played an important role in promoting the transition of society, technology, and economy from the industrial to the information era. Now, our society has to transform to minimise our environmental impact to ensure sustainable future (variously denoted as post-anthropocenic, -cthulucenic, or -capitalocenic , -eurocene epoch). This transformation is imagined to be dependent on and driven by the ICT. Reason being is, that ICT is said to increase the energy efficiency of the economy in general, which currently wastes appr. 86% of the produced energy [3]. For the energy sector specifically, it would enable a distributed and decentralised energy networks, which would shorten power transmission routes, decrease energy waste, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

If the ICT sector is to play such a pivotal role in the energy transition, it will take on a significant burden to reduce it’s own energy consumption and GHG emissions. While it currently contributes 2.1-3.9% to the total GHG emission of our population (C. Freitag et al 2021), it is projected to dramatically increase within this decade: using 21% of global electricity by 2030 in the expected case, with an 8% or 51% share in the best and worst cases respectively [1]. The most significant trend along this projection, regardless of scenario, is that the energy consumption decreases in consumer devices and increases in networks and data centres. The transformative potential of 5G, on the energy sector specifically and the economy and society in general, puts the Internet infrastructure at the centre of discussions about sustainable development and begs for in depth and cross-disciplinary examination.

In this short article, I want to explore how internet standards-developing organisations (SDO) have so far attended to the climate emergency. While not all Internet governance practices unfold in standard-setting institutions, these bodies are focus points for coordination, and a place where many of the actors that produce the Internet, and exercise infrastructural power, meet. They pose as a space for self-regulated fora and bottom-up coordination (Sowell 2012 and ten Oever 2021). There are a number of relevant SDOs who’s work on Internet governance and standardisation is done in cooperation with other SDOs and whose focus can evolve into different directions. To simplify this exploration, I will only focus on the principal SDOs engaged in the development of the Internet’s architecture, namely the International Telecommunication Union-Telecommunication Standardisation Sector (ITU-T), 3rd Generation Partnership Project, Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Before uncovering the histories of climate thought in the chosen SDOs, let’s sketch the essential parts of the Internet to gain a high-level view. The most universal and persistent element of structure and organisation is the network architecture. The architecture defines how sets of protocols are organised, where protocols define how various modules interact. For the current Internet, the architecture design is the TCP/IP protocol stack (also referred to as the hourglass protocol stack). Although in theory each protocol belongs to one layer in the stack, in practice protocols were required that can ‘overlay’ between different layers. Thus, even though the image of a tidy stack of separate sets of protocols is outdated, I will list it here as it is what we currently have to work with. As a side note, notable research projects that study new architecture designs are SCION, RINA and NDN.

Layer SDO Standards
3 Transport IETF TCP, UDP, TLS, QUIC
2 Internet IETF IPv4, IPv6, ICMP, ECM, Seamoby
1 Network/Link IEEE Ethernet, WiFi
  3GPP 2G/3G/4G/5G

To be clear, Internet protocols in and of themselves contribute very little to the overall environmental harm when compared to the, e.g., physical materiality that needs to be manufactured for the Internet to work. However, they influence directly the interoperability between systems and indirectly the requirements for new physical equipment. A helpful guidance for SDOs on how to address climate change is given by ISO GUIDE 84:2020.

All five standardisation bodies in the table have and are working towards a sustainable future. The ITU-T is responsible, inter alia, for studying and issuing recommendations on questions regarding telecommunications and information communication technology. Within its Study Group 5, which exists since 1997, the focus lies on recommending design methodologies to reduce environmental impacts of ICT. Examples of published standards are ITU-T L.1200, which specifies direct current interfaces, and ITU-T L.1300, which describes best practices to reduce negative impact of datacenter on climate. The work of ITU-T/SG5 is motivated by their conviction that ICT is a fundamental pillar in the response as they enable “monitoring climate change, mitigating and adapting”. Such narrative derives from the belief that the natural environment needs to be managed and that “We can’t manage what we can’t monitore”, to paraphrase the motto of the Planetary Skin Institute set up by Cisco and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2009 and shut down since then. Thinkers like Benjamin Bratton oppose such narratives, as it imagines the natural environment is something to be policed, that carries the potential to position us as the antecedent enemy of what is to come.

The 3GPP was founded by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Documented traces of a change in narrative that include not just energy saving incentives for their OPEX (Operational Expenditure), but also a motivation to ‘contribute to the protection of our environment and the environment of future generations’ ([3GPP-1]) are starting to show up in 2009 with Release-10. This change is directly driven by operators wanting to create an ‘environmental image’ of themselves and indirectly by governments wanting to meet national and international treaties on the climate crisis. Since then the focus has been on six different topics:

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Sustainable Web Design community group, which exists since 2013 and focuses on “integration of many areas of design and development into an overarching framework to maximise energy efficiency, lowering environmental impact, and raising inclusiveness.” Another community group named ‘Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials’ which existed for appr. one year until 2016. It was established under the ‘Big Data Europe’ project, which was part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme. It mainly served the purpose to ‘identify the current as well the future Big Data challenges in the Climate domain’. The outcomes would then be used to design and realise the ICT infrastructure needed to benefit from big data technologies, maximising the opportunities of the latest European RTD developments, including multilingual data harvesting, data analytics, and data visualisation. Although this community group was only short lived, there are newer and enduring traces of climate thought within W3C community groups, such as in the following:

Furthermore in 2019, when W3C’s Technical Architecture Group released their ‘Ethical Web Principles’ which explicitly states: ‘The web must be an environmentally sustainable platform’. These principles have been labelled as ‘anticompetitive’ within W3C and shows the competition of views within SDOs. A recently erupted debate around W3C efforts to standardise Decentralized IDentifiers (DID), a prominent use case of non-fungible tokens (NFT). It started with the Mozilla Foundation’s call to review W3C’s DID v1.0 in September 2021 as:

“Proof-of-work methods (e.g. blockchains) are harmful for sustainability (s12y). Also as noted by Google, the registry contains methods which rely upon proof-of-work which is wasteful. “Successful” proof-of-work systems waste a staggering amount of electricity world-wide (e.g. Bitcoin consumes more energy than most countries […]) demonstrating that the more such methods are adopted, the more their energy requirements grow, without any discernible upper bound, which is grossly irresponsible given the global environmental crisis (recent IPCC report […]).”

To which the responds of W3C’s DID working group members was:

  • “It seems like a witch hunt”, and
  • “This is a blatant political attack on cryptocurrencies and has no place in interoperability specifications for DID Methods.””

None the less, it was agree to included a section on ‘Environmental Considerations’ in the current draft.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is among the most open and transparent Internet SDOs. A clear example of IETF’s influence is given by its redesign of the IPv4 communication protocol into the improved version IPv6. The redesign does not only solve the problem of IPv4 address exhaustion, but is also claimed to reduce energy usage and increases flexibility towards green networking (e.g., [7], [8], [9], [10]). In 2010, the IETF set up the Energy Management working group (EMAN, [11]) to create a framework standard that enables monitoring, controlling, and managing of the energy consumption of networking and network-attached devices while still providing sufficient performance to meet service level objectives. Five years later however, the EMAN working group was shut down and has never been reactivated despite remaining problems, e.g., it does not address questions regarding electricity producers and distributors as well as the roll-out of new technologies (e.g., IoT and 5G). But other dimensions through which impacts on climate and ecology can be addressed are present in other working groups that are concerned with, e.g., smart energy, smart grid, and the Internet of Things.


[1] UK Digital Strategy 2017 Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport; UK Gov.

[2] #SMARTER2030 ICT Solutions for 21st Century Challenges (2015) Global e-Sustainability Initiative

[3] The energy and emergy of the internet (2011) Barath Raghavan and Justin Ma

[4] The Energy Efficiency Benefits and the Economic Imperative of ICT-Enabled Systems (2015) In: ICT Innovations for Sustainability Springer International Publishing

[5] Anders Andrae and Tomas Edler (2015) On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030.

[6] Casamayor, J.L., Su, D. and Ren, Z. (2018) Comparative life cycle assessment of LED lighting products. Lighting Research & Technology

[7] Ran Liu et al. (2019) Impacts of the digitaltransformation on the environment and sustainability. Technical report, Oko‑Institut e.V., December2019

[8] J. Chabarek et al. (2008) Power Awareness in NetworkDesign and Routing. The 27th Conference on Computer Communications, IEEE

[9] Roberto Bruschi et al. (2014) Green extension of OpenFlow. The 26th International Teletraffic Congress, IEEE

[10] Frederic Giroire et al. (2014) Optimizing rule placement in software‑defined networks for energy‑aware routing. The Global Communications Conference, IEEE

[11] Joel Jaeggli (2014) Energy Management (EMAN) Applicability Statement

[3GPP-1] Published: 05/10/2010 Accessed: 23/02/2022

[3GPP-2] Published: 2022 Accessed: 23/02/2022