We chat to Chris Adams, Co-Director at The Green Web Foundation (TGWF)

Green Tech South West brings together some wonderful people from organisations in the digital tech community, all working to surface and implement meaningful change to the tech industry’s impact on climate change.

Join us for an insightful and carefully curated panel discussion on Dec 9th, that will provide inspiration and practical advice on how YOU can get involved in making positive change within the tech industry in 2022.

We’re looking forward to welcoming Chris Adams, Co-director at The Green Web Foundation (TGWF) as one of our panellists. We caught up with him ahead of the event to him a few questions about TGWF.

A little about TGWF

TGWF believes humanity deserves a healthy and sustainable internet; one that is green, open and diverse, and works towards making this a reality.

In 2006, TGWF started working with a small team on a project that aimed to make the kind of energy that powers the internet visible: green for renewables, grey for fossil-fuel powered. Today they run a number of tools to make that data easier to look up, and have expanded their offering to focus on representing the needs of smaller and medium size organizations online, and actively building a professional community around the idea of an internet that is green, open and diverse.

How did you get involved in working with TGWF?

Chris: I first got involved with the Green Web Foundation in 2018, when I was doing some research to see which of the world’s most popular websites ran on green energy. I was wary that some code I wrote was monstering their API, so I got in touch to ask about direct access to the data, and then over the subsequent years, I ended up raising funding to work with them on open sourcing their platform and datasets.

After that, I joined the foundation officially to build out a practice focussed around teaching digital sustainability, becoming a director of the board. I complemented this work with Michelle Thorne of Mozilla Foundation, to do new work on shift narratives around climate and tech – first with Branch magazine, and then with the Green Web Fellowship programme.

Why do you feel it is important for tech workers to take action on climate change?

Chris: If you’re working in technology, then statistically speaking, you’re likely to enjoy more professional mobility and agency in your work than people in other jobs. If you feel a dissonance in what you do professionally and what you see happening in the news, then one effective way to deal with it is to act on this dissonance.

Also, if there are many other people in more vulnerable positions who are able to act on climate, it feels a bit weak for us to say it’s not our job to think about it – especially when for many of us developing a better understanding of climate is actively good for our careers. ClimateTech is the fastest growing sector in tech right now, so I think educating yourself, and being proactive in this field is good in so many ways.

What do you think blocks more people working in tech to take action?

Chris: This might sound strange, but a lot of the time, it almost feels as if people at work are waiting for permission to care about some really basic things, like a habitable world, not throwing future generations under the bus and so on, and just assuming that no-one else is feeling this same anxiety and dissonance. I’ve heard this referred to as the “values perception gap”, where we all assume that we’re the only one who cares, and because of this we don’t think it’s worth talking to others about what we can change. It’s no-one’s fault that we’ve lapsed into this ridiculous destructive default, but it’s also no-one’s job to get us out of it either, so we just stay there, unhappy.

I think once you realise others are feeling like there is a need for more action, it gets easier to decide to take a first step. But because we’ve spent decades thinking we’re the only ones who care, we struggle to find clear guidance on what to do first. This is improving, and I think groups like Green Tech SW both act as a beacon for the first issue, and help with the second. But we need so many more groups doing this!

What tech solutions do you think are valuable to healing climate change, and what do you think are white elephants / a waste of time?

Chris: One thing we say on the Green Web Fellowship when we talk about the climate crisis is that it’s not about energy, it’s about power. We’ve literally known for decades that burning fossils has been the main driver of climate change, and even at COP26, the place where all the world’s governments agree on a global response to climate change, the largest delegation wasn’t from any single country – it was from the fossil fuel industry. 

I think that we need to be honest about solutions that do not help us transition from fossil fuels, or address why attempts to get off them and onto cleaner, safer technology keep getting watered down or taken off the table.

To make this more concrete, let’s look at direct air capture or similar forms of carbon removal. Getting excited about this or investing in this is much easier than addressing the prevalence of fossil fuels in our society. But it feels intellectually really lazy, and doesn’t address any issues of power. If you care about reducing carbon, it would be so much cheaper and more effective to buy out a coal fired power station, shut it down, and replace it with renewables. For some perspective, for 5% of the money spent on the US COVID related bailouts, we could have done this for *every coal-fired power plant on earth*.

The thing is though, doing this would involve challenging entrenched powerful groups – and because we don’t talk about that, that same 5% has ended up going to prop up existing fossil fuel infrastructure instead.

Even when we have talked about where this money ought to go in the tech community, so much talk ends up being about how cool it would be to pour this money into various forms of carbon removal – a super early form of tech that relies on huge amounts of energy. Right now, that energy is mostly coming from burning fossil fuels, which ends up undoing most of the benefits anyway.

These kinds of technologies are not white elephants, nor are they a waste of time – we’ll need them, but they’re not where we should focus our efforts first – we have to fix the fossil fuel problem first!