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Clothing retailers like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M make cheap and fashionable clothing to satisfy the needs of young consumers. Yet, fast fashion has a significant environmental impact. According to the UN Environment Programme, the industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Unfortunately, fast fashion problems are often overlooked by consumers.

What is Fast Fashion?

The term ‘fast fashion’ has become more prominent in conversations surrounding fashion, sustainability, and environmental consciousness. The term refers to ‘cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends’.

The fast fashion model is so-called because it involves the rapid design, production, distribution, and marketing of clothing, which means that retailers are able to pull large quantities of greater product variety and allow consumers to get more fashion and product differentiation at a low price.

The term was first used at the beginning of the 1990s, when when Zara landed in New York. “Fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores. The biggest players in the fast fashion world include Zara, UNIQLO, Forever 21 and H&M.

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Why is Fast Fashion Bad?

According to Business Insider, fashion production comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions, as much as the European Union. It dries up water sources and pollutes rivers and streams, while 85% of all textiles go to dumps each year. Even washing clothes releases 500 000 tons of microfibres into the ocean each year, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.

The Quantis International 2018 report found that the three main drivers of the industry’s global pollution impacts are dyeing and finishing (36%), yarn preparation (28%) and fibre production (15%). The report also established that fibre production has the largest impact on freshwater withdrawal (water diverted or withdrawn from a surface water or groundwater source) and ecosystem quality due to cotton cultivation, while the dyeing and finishing, yarn preparation and fibre production stages have the highest impacts on resource depletion, due to the energy-intensive processes based on fossil fuel energy.

According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60% by 2030.

The time it takes for a product to go through the supply chain, from design to purchase, is called a ‘lead time’. In 2012, Zara was able to design, produce and deliver a new garment in two weeks; Forever 21 in six weeks and H&M in eight weeks. This results in the fashion industry producing obscene amounts of waste.

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Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact

Water

The environmental impact of fast fashion comprises the depletion of non-renewable sources, emission of greenhouse gases and the use of massive amounts of water and energy. The fashion industry is the second largest consumer industry of water, requiring about 700 gallons to produce one cotton shirt and 2 000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans. Business Insider also cautions that textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water, since the water leftover from the dyeing process is often dumped into ditches, streams or rivers.

Microplastics

Furthermore, brands use synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic which take hundreds of years to biodegrade. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics – tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic – in the ocean come from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.

According to the documentary released in 2015, The True Cost, the world consumes around 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, 400% more than the consumption twenty years ago. The average American now generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. The production of leather requires large amounts of feed, land, water and fossil fuels to raise livestock, while the tanning process is among the most toxic in all of the fashion supply chain because the chemicals used to tan leather- including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils and dyes- is not biodegradable and contaminates water sources.

Energy

The production of making plastic fibres into textiles is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of petroleum and releases volatile particulate matter and acids like hydrogen chloride. Additionally, cotton, which is in a large amount of fast fashion products, is also not environmentally friendly to manufacture. Pesticides deemed necessary for the growth of cotton presents health risks to farmers.

To counter this waste caused by fast fashion, more sustainable fabrics that can be used in clothing include wild silk, organic cotton, linen, hemp and lyocell.

The Social Impacts of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion does not only have a huge environmental impact. In fact, the industry also poses societal problems, especially in developing economies. According to non-profit Remake, 80% of apparel is made by young women between the ages of 18 and 24. A 2018 US Department of Labor report found evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and others. Rapid production means that sales and profits supersede human welfare.

In 2013, an eight-floor factory building that housed several garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1 134 workers and injuring more than 2 500. In her project, An Analysis of the Fast Fashion Industry, Annie Radner Linden suggests that ‘the garment industry has always been a low-capital and labour intensive industry’.

In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that developing nations are viable for garment industries due to ‘cheap labour, vast tax breaks, and lenient laws and regulations’. According to The True Cost, one in six people work in some part of the global fashion industry, making it the most labour-dependent industry. These developing nations also rarely follow environmental regulations; China, for example, is a major producer of fast fashion but is notorious for land degradation and air and water pollution.

Is Slow Fashion the Solution?

Slow fashion is the widespread reaction to fast fashion, the argument for hitting the brakes on excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption. It advocates for manufacturing that respects people, the environment and animals.

The World Resources Institute suggests that companies need to design, test and invest in business models that reuse clothes and maximise their useful life. The UN has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion to address the damages caused by fast fashion. It is seeking to ‘halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion’.

One way that shoppers are reducing their consumption of fast fashion is by buying from secondhand sellers like ThredUp Inc. and Poshmark, both based in California, USA; shoppers send their unwanted clothes to these websites and people buy those clothes at a lower price than the original. Another solution is renting clothes, like the US-based Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee, the UK based Girl Meets Dress, and the Dutch firm Mud Jeans that leases organic jeans which can be kept, swapped or returned.

Other retailers like Adidas are experimenting with personalised gear to cut down on returns, increase customer satisfaction and reduce inventory. Ralph Lauren has announced that it will use 100% sustainably-sourced key materials by 2025.

Governments need to be more actively involved in the fashion industry’s damaging effects. UK ministers rejected a report by members of parliament to address the environmental effects of fast fashion. On the other hand, French president, Emmanuel Macron has made a pact with 150 brands to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

The best advice on reducing fast fashion comes from Patsy Perry, senior lecturer in fashion marketing at the University of Manchester, who says, “Less is always more.”

You might Also Like: How to Recognise Fast Fashion Brands and Which Ones to Avoid

Further reading:

Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas

The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline

It’s easy to feel despondent scrolling through social media and seeing what we’re doing to our beautiful planet. We should be following accounts that showcase important information, of course, but also ones that show beautiful things and inspiring news. In that vein, here are 20 of our favourite environmental Instagram accounts that will fill your feed with beauty and the drive to save our planet. 

This account is your bible for sustainable living. It’s full of sustainable, zero-waste tips that you can use in your everyday life, in your school, office and home. Expect to learn how to make your own eco-friendly cleaning products.

As the name suggests, the Instagram account has made it their mission to bring feminism and environmentalism together, highlighting not only the biggest female voices and thought leaders on  environment and climate change, but also shed light on various issues including gender inequality, as well as encourage more women to take climate action.

Aside from her iconic role in the Harry Potter films, the English actress is also well-known climate and women’s rights activist. Her account is a wonderful resource for detailed yet digestible explainers of the biggest environmental issues and relevant policies of today, introduces important books and perspectives related to climate change, and shines a spotlight on the wealth of female activists from around the world driving change.

Founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, a 25-year project to show the world the beauty of biodiversity and inspire action to save species, the famed photographer is on a mission to capture the world’s biodiversity before it disappears.

 Another account for beautiful pictures of biodiversity around the world. It’s a sobering reminder of the damage we’re inflicting on the planet and those that inhabit it.

In 2016, Joseph was one of five Rolex Laureates awarded for his contribution to glacial research. His photographs show how microorganisms in the ice have an impact on the planet. 

Follow this account for beautiful pictures of cetaceans from around the world.

Nicklen is a National Geographic contributor and co-founder of Sea Legacy, who documents marine life and the effects of human development on the ocean. 

If  you like these environmental accounts on Instagram, you might also like: 21 Best Environmental Films of 2021

The park, which is Africa’s oldest and most biologically diverse protected area, is famously home to mountain gorillas, but its account shows the park’s inhabitants at their most beautiful. 

A diverse group of photographers from six continents show the effects of climate change around the world.

This account will entertain and keep you engaged in important climate activism. 

This fantastic account frequently shows world-saving initiatives around the world. 

In 1998, actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio founded The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation which is dedicated to the long-term health and wellbeing of the planet and those that inhabit it. Through collaborative partnerships it supports innovative projects that protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction, while restoring balance to threatened ecosystems and communities.

As the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzee and renowned primatologist, Dr Jane Goodall has no shortage of knowledge and optimism on how we can protect and restore nature and all life on Earth.  Mixed with clips from her podcast, the Hopecast, and plenty of stunning photographs of our closest cousins, the chimpanzee, the Instagram account is both informative and cute.

The World Resources Institute’s mission is to move society to live in ways that protect Earth’s environment and its capacity to provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations. They focus their work on six critical issues at the intersection of environment and development: climate, energy, food, forests, water and cities & transportation.

The international not-for-profit organisation is all about improving the state of the world “by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas”, and regularly posts educational short videos about the biggest climate risks and vulnerabilities, economic policies proposed or adopted by world leaders and influential figures, and occasionally, startups and individuals’ climate solution projects.

Lilly Platt is an international environmental champion. At 13, Lilly has achieved more than the average adult and has established herself as one of the world’s largest environmentalist. This environmental Instagram account is filled with the super useful tips on how to reduce plastic waste from your daily life, plus updates from her latest appearances at the various international panels and sustainability events.

Paul is a Hong Kong-based conservation photographer with a focus on the manta and shark fin trade, deforestation and wildlife crimes

Aaron is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist and film-maker and EO Photographer. His images and articles have appeared in publications such as National Geographic, BBC, The Guardian, The Times, Asian Geographic and more. His new book, Animosity, chronicles life on the frontline of conservation.

Hannah Testa is a sustainability advocate, international speaker, author, politico, and founder of Hannah4Change, a non-profit dedicated to fighting several issues that impact the planet. Follow her journey for all the inspiring projects she’s involved in and climate action you can either join in or replicate in your own communities.

We hope that this list of environmental Instagram accounts will inspire you to lead a more sustainable life to ensure the health of the planet for generations to come.

Featured image by: Flickr

First posited in 1968 by American ecologist Garret Hardin, the Tragedy of the Commons describes a situation where shared environmental resources are overused and exploited, and eventually depleted, posing risks to everyone involved. Hardin argues that to prevent this, there should be some restrictions to the amount of usage, for example, property rights must be affixed. 

What is the Tragedy of the Commons?

The definition of the Tragedy of the Commons is an economic and environmental science problem where individuals have access to a shared resource and act in their own interest, at the expense of other individuals. This can result in overconsumption, underinvestment, and depletion of resources.

Garrett Hardin, an evolutionary biologist, wrote a paper called “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the journal Science in 1968. In  summary of the Hardin paper, the Tragedy of the Commons addressed the growing concern of overpopulation, and Hardin used an example of sheep grazing land when describing the adverse effects of overpopulation. In this case, grazing lands held as private property will see their use limited by the prudence of the land holder in order to preserve the value of the land and health of the herd. Grazing lands held in common will become over-saturated with livestock because the food the animals consume is shared among all herdsmen.

Hardin argues that individual short-term interest– to take as much of a resource as possible – is in opposition to societal good. If everyone was to act on this individual interest, the situation would worsen for society as a whole- demand for a shared resource would overshadow the supply, and the resource would eventually become entirely unavailable. 

Conversely, exercising restraint would yield benefits for all in the long-term, as the shared resource would remain available. 

Tragedy of the Commons Examples

Arguably the best examples of Tragedy of the Commons occur in situations that lead to environmental degradation. 

Among many things, pollution is caused by wastewater. As the number of households and companies increase and dump their waste into the water, the water loses its ability to clean itself. This results in water that is toxic to wildlife and the people that live around and rely on it. 

Overfishing

Another example of the Tragedy of the Commons lies in overfishing. In Canada, the Grand Banks fishery off the coast of Newfoundland was a means of livelihood for regional fishermen. Abundant in cod, the fishery allowed fishermen to catch as many cod as they desired without negatively impacting their population. 

Then, in the 1960s, advancements in technology allowed fishermen to catch vast quantities of cod, far more than before. However, with each passing season, the amount of cod deteriorated and by the 1990s, the fishing industry in the region collapsed because there wasn’t enough fish to go around. This situation where individual fishermen took advantage of opportunities to benefit themselves in the short term, even when their actions were clearly detrimental to society in the long term, encapsulates the self-preserving mindset behind the Tragedy of the Commons. These fishermen thought logically, but not collectively, which led to their downfall. 

COVID-19

The Tragedy of the Commons can also be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its early days, people were generally wary of mixing with anyone outside their immediate family, leaving their homes less and working from home. However, another result of the pandemic was that people began to stock up on food and utilities. People likely assumed that everyone else would stock up as well and so the only solution was to preempt this scenario and stockpile food before the next person could. Again, people were thinking logically, but not collectively, and herein lies the relevance of the Tragedy of the Commons. Individuals took advantage of opportunities that benefited themselves, but spread out the harmful effects of their consumption across society. 

Retailers responded by imposing restrictions on the number of items one could buy, but it was too late. Entire grocery aisles were empty, wiped clean. 

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What About the Environment?

Shared resources that mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis are abused constantly. 

No single authority can pass laws that protect the entire ocean. Each country can only manage and protect the ocean resources along its coastlines, leaving the shared common space beyond any particular jurisdiction vulnerable to pollution. This has led to obscene amounts of ocean pollution, as seen in garbage patches that accumulate in the centre of circular currents, for example. This will affect everyone as these pollutants cycle through the marine food chain, and then humans as we consume fish. Another problem facing the oceans are dead zones, areas in lakes and oceans where no marine life can live because of the lack of oxygen caused by excessive pollution and fertiliser runoff. 

The atmosphere is another resource being used and abused, as are forests. Unregulated and illegal logging pose great risks to forests’ ability to store carbon. In some parts of the world, vast expanses of rainforests aren’t governed in a way that allows effective management for resource extraction. Timber producers are driven to take as much timber as possible as cheaply as possible, without considering the wider impacts of doing so. 

Poor governance exacerbates the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. 

Who is Meant to Fix It?

Ideally, governments at the local, state, national and international levels would define and manage shared resources. However, there are problems with this. Management inside clear boundaries is quite straightforward, but more problematic are resources shared across jurisdictions. For example, at the international level, states are not bound by a common authority and may view restrictions on resource extraction as a threat to their sovereignty. Additionally, more difficulties arise when resources cannot be divided, such as in whale treaties when the fishing of the whales’ food source is separately regulated. 

Economist Scott Barrett at Columbia University in New York says that international law “has no teeth, so treaties are essentially voluntary. “Even when countries decide to take part in collective conservation efforts, they can simply pull out again when they want to,” as Canada did in 2011 when it pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and when America withdrew from the Paris Agreement in late 2019 – though they rejoined shortly in the following year by the Biden Administration. 

As the global population increases and demand for resources follows, the downsides of the Commons become more apparent. Some may argue that this will test the role and practicality of nation-states, leading to a redefinition of international governance. Further, it may lead some to question the role of supranational governments, such as the UN or the World Trade Organization; as resources become more limited, some may argue that managing the commons may not have a solution at all. 

What Can Be Done?

A potential solution to this is to affix property rights to public spaces. For example, charging a toll to use a freeway or implementing a tax for dumping wastewater would reduce the number of users to those who act in the best interests of others, not only themselves. Other solutions could include government intervention or developing strategies to trigger collective behaviour, such as assigning small groups in a community a plot of land to look after. 

Overall, regulating consumption and use can reduce over-consumption and government investment in conservation and renewal of the resource can help prevent its depletion.

Featured image by: Matteo de Mayda

In early October, the House of Representatives in Indonesia, under the Presidency of Joko Widodo, passed the controversial Omnibus Law, amending 79 existing laws in one single bill. The legislation has been widely unpopular and has been heavily criticised by civil organisations, environmental groups and trade unions, causing massive protests in more than three dozen cities. The Omnibus Law is intended to boost Indonesia’s economy and create jobs by simplifying business permits and easing foreign investment restrictions, however, it does so at the expense of worker’s rights and environmental protections and could cause greater deforestation and biodiversity loss.

How Does the Omnibus Law Affect Indonesia’s Environment?

Among the most controversial articles of the Omnibus Law is the repeal of the current regulation requiring at least 30% of forest area to be conserved for each watershed area or island. According to the environmental NGO Madani, this removal opens the door for massive deforestation and can exacerbate the effects of natural disasters in a country already prone to floods, droughts and earthquakes.

The Omnibus Law also eases the requirements for businesses to carry out environmental impact assessments as a precondition to obtaining a business license and limits public consultation to only those who are directly affected by the specific project. Ultimately, this can lead to the issuance of business permits to companies that neglect the environment. It also prevents environmental organisations and members of the community that are more aware of the environmental impact from objecting to the project, since they may not be directly impacted.

Another significant amendment is the removal of the strict liability principle from the Forestry and Environmental Law, making it harder to prove and prosecute companies that set fire to their land in order to clear it for commercial purposes. According to Greenpeace, such practices, especially for palm oil plantations, have already burned 4.4 million hectares between 2015 and 2019 in Indonesia. The removal of the strict liability principle may ultimately lead to an increase in the conversion of rainforest to plantations, greenhouse emissions and endangerment of species, including the Sumatran orangutan. 

The introduction of the Omnibus Law jeopardises the significant environmental improvements Indonesia has achieved in the past several years. Since 2017, deforestation in the country has declined from one million acres a year to fewer than 250 000 acres a year, due in large part to the approval of more sustainable governmental policies, such as the moratorium on forest clearance and the commitment of 83% of palm oil refineries in Indonesia and Malaysia to the No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) practices.

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The Omnibus Law May Deter Investors From the Indonesian Market

While the Omnibus Law aims to spur more domestic and foreign investment in the country, it contravenes the current investment trend towards sustainability and may ultimately deter investors. Within this context, 36 institutional investors managing USD$4.1 trillion signed an open letter highlighting their concerns regarding the environmental impact of the Omnibus Law. Additionally, the EU recently launched a public consultation on its initiative to reduce its contribution to deforestation worldwide, promoting the consumption of products sourced from deforestation-free supply chains. 

Lastly, the Omnibus Law stands in stark contrast to the growing global demand for sustainable commodities and the increased commitment by investors to incorporate environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) into their investment decisions.

The government of Indonesia has lost an opportunity to strengthen its economy while protecting its natural resources, jeopardising the mid and long-term development of the country in a world where sustainable practices are becoming significantly more important.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons 

The Draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 in India, drafted by the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) with the intention to overhaul the process of environmental regulation of infrastructure projects, has been widely criticised for its “pro-industry” and “anti-environment” legislation clauses, which may regularise projects that violate environmental norms.

The Draft EIA Notification 2020 is a formal legal decision-making process enacted to examine, evaluate and predict the environmental impact of any developmental project or programme. According to the MoEFCC, this notification seeks to make the decision-making process more transparent and expedient “through [the] implementation of [an] online system, further delegations, rationalisation, standardisation of the process, etc.”. 

Many believe, however, that the notification was drafted in such a way that allows for industries to continue turning a blind eye to environmental concerns. Echoing the sentiments of many activists, environmental groups, students and biologists, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi described the notification as “a disaster [which] seeks to silence the voice of communities who will be directly impacted by the environmental degradation it unleashes.”

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Critics have particularly taken issue with how 40-plus types of industries – including but not limited to clay and sand extraction and the creation of solar thermal power plants – are exempt from prior environment clearance (EC) with the approval of expert committees or prior environmental permission or provision (EP) without the approval of expert committees. These industries were previously required to secure prior EC or EP. Further, some projects – such as irrigation, production of chemical fertilisers, acid manufacturing, and the development of roads, highways and buildings – are totally exempt from public consultation. 

Solar energy projects are likely included in this notification because they reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, however this overlooks environmental concerns such as the requirement of large land area, diversion of agricultural land and changes to drainage patterns brought on by the construction and operation of solar parks. 

The undertaking of an EIA is a minimum environment and social safeguard and the lack of them may discourage investment. For example, The World Bank, which funds solar projects in India, including the Rewa Solar Park in Madhya Pradesh, insists on an EIA before embarking on projects, something that this “anti-environment” draft legislation violates.

As many critics have argued, the notification’s endorsement of this ex post facto environmental clearance goes against the precedent set by the Supreme Court in the case Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Rohit Prajapati, which had struck down such clearance as unconstitutional. In the words of the Supreme Court, “allowing for an ex post facto clearance essentially condones the operation of industrial activities without the grant of an EC (environmental clearance). In the absence of an EC, there would be no conditions that would safeguard the environment…” 

Further, the period for public consultation on projects has been reduced from 30 to 20 days, endangering the tenets of public participation. It even exempts massive construction projects under category B2 from having to conduct public consultations at all before seeking environmental clearance.

It also creates confusion as to how the country will embark on environmental projects in the face of its membership in the Rio declaration adopted by the UN in 1992, which calls for EIAs. They are also required under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), both of which India is a party to, which both contain a requirement to have a prior EIA in situations having a significant threat to the environment. 

Accordingly, if the draft notification is passed as law in its current form, it will set a very bad precedent for the future. As environmental lawyer, Parul Gupta, wrote in a document by Vindhyan Ecology and Natural History Foundation, “the proposed safeguards of penalties and compensations are inadequate to counter the inevitable and irreversible ecological destruction. It is submitted that if the Draft Notification is implemented, it will ultimately lead to unscientific and unsustainable development.” 

Hopefully, the Ministry of Environment in India will take this outcry into account and withdraw or modify this “anti-environment” draft legislation. As Shibani Gosh – fellow, Centre for Policy Research and Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court – reminds us, the Ministry of Environment needs to “be clear about its role – its mandate is to create and sustain a regulatory framework that prevents the plunder of our natural resources, not actively accelerate the pace of environmental devastation.”

International treaties such as The Paris Agreement commits governments to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meeting this challenge demands a rethinking and restructuring of the world’s energy consumption, which demands a review of the functioning of each sector of activity. Digital technology- including the internet- is one such sector that is oft-overlooked by the public and policy makers, but the environmental harm linked to this sector demands attention as urgent as that which is given to others, which calls for a ‘digital sobriety’ approach.

The Digital Carbon Footprint

Digital technologies are responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, a figure expected to double by 2025 and the energy required for this sector is increasing by 8% a year. Watching a half-hour show online leads to 1.6kgs of carbon emissions. 

The Internet poses a threat to climate change, however it is extremely hard to regulate, as so many people use it for so many different things. One of the most energy-intensive of the Internet is video. Ten hours of high-quality video comprises more data than all of the English articles on Wikipedia in text format. Online videos represented 80% of global data flows in 2018, with the remaining 20% representing websites, data, video games, etc. Categories of these online videos include streaming, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc, ‘Tubes’, such as Youtube, and social networks. 

This variety of categories illustrates how difficult it is to regulate video usage as there are multiple factors that need to be considered for each category. The increase in video consumption results in massive amounts of data being stored, damaging the environment further and going against the aims of the Paris Agreement.  

How to reduce internet pollution?

Environmental experts from Paris created a think tank called “The Shift Project,” which proposes the idea of ‘digital sobriety’. Digital sobriety promotes using the Internet and technology in a more mindful and responsible way as opposed to cutting it out entirely; the think tank acknowledges the implausibility of this, adding that it ignores the positive contributions of digital technologies. 

Earth.org the internet is harming the environment
A graph showing the digital share of greenhouse gas emissions under a ‘digital sobriety’ scenario and a scenario without ‘digital sobriety’ (Source: The Shift Project)

Maxime Efoui-Hess, a member of the think tank, says, “The ‘good effects’ of digital technologies, in terms of energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions, are constantly neutralised at global scale by the fact that we use these technologies without thinking about the right way to do it.” 

He discusses the need  to use technology efficiently, “We cannot deny how much the Internet has become a part of our daily lives, but it is about becoming aware of how to use technology more sustainably.”

The think tank believes that humanity is the victim of ‘addictive design,’ a concept in which websites employ mechanisms such as ‘autoplay’ and the ‘recommended section’ of streaming sites to maximise the amount of time spent by a user on the platform. 

It allows for a continuous flow of video rather than a timed usage, which boosts the consumption of a large amount of content and generates an increase in the volumes of associated data. For example, the ‘autoplay’ functionality on Netflix encourages the user to watch more episodes than they would have intended, as there is little time to opt out before the next episode starts playing. Consumers need to be aware of how website design can influence them to spend more time online than is necessary. 

The Shift Project asserts that ‘regulation by content’ is needed, which ‘would aim at redimensioning the design of platforms to orient behaviours to a more precise selection of the content consumed. It would reduce the volume of content consumed and be more consistent with the user’s needs’. 

This approach makes it possible to act directly on the product consumed- video content- and therefore adapt regulatory tools to its specific characteristics. It would allow users to take into account the processes at the source of the consumption of data in order to act on them. 

China is one country attempting to crack down on over usage of the internet, albeit not with the intention of curbing emissions. In November 2019, the nation announced that it would impose curfews on minors playing video games to combat what it says is an addiction ‘harming the physical and mental health of minors’. Gamers under 18 are now barred from playing online games between 10pm and 8am and during the week, minors are allowed to play for 90 minutes a day, an allotment that extends to three hours on weekends and public holidays. While it is too early to ascertain if this is a beneficial move, it may encourage game makers, and website designers broadly, to reduce their use of addictive design mechanisms. 

However, no broad legislative action has been taken as most laws and political discussion surrounding the Internet concern data protection. There are difficulties in regulating content on the internet, as this would require an examination on the implications in terms of freedom of expression and the accessibility of contents, which raises the question of Net Neutrality. 

While there are certainly challenges in reducing the carbon footprint of digital technologies, especially when considering the ethical aspects, as well as the practical aspects regarding increasing global access to the internet and an increasing population, there needs to be more consideration of how these technologies are impacting on the planet. Regulations need to be implemented on a policy level that balances mitigation of environmental harm and people’s right to information and freedom of speech. 

The UK officially withdrew from the EU on January 31 2020, but there is still much uncertainty surrounding what will happen next. While the UK has agreed to the terms of its EU departure, both sides need to decide what their future relationship will look like. This will be worked out during the transition period ending on December 31st, during which time a new free trade agreement will be negotiated. What impact will Brexit have on the environment?

The UK’s environmental policies have been greatly affected by its EU membership. While it would be easy to advocate for remaining in the EU, it is important to consider that the UK has contributed to strengthening the EU’s policies, while having its own weakened in some areas. Moving forward, it is important to focus on post-Brexit scenarios rather than looking back and questioning whether leaving the EU was a good decision.  

Brexit Impacts on Environmental Laws

Although the government has promised a ‘Green Brexit’, it is not entirely clear what that entails. In the short run, it wants the same rules to apply on ‘exit day’ as the day before. The European Union Withdrawal Bill ensures that EU legislation, including its environmental regulations, will be incorporated into the UK’s domestic laws, with some flexibility to ensure that domestic legislation continues to function efficiently. This means that, at least during the transition period, the UK will still abide by EU policies and there won’t be any large differences in the domestic environmental regulations. However, in the long term, the government may wish to make changes and the extent to which they will be allowed to do so will depend on the kind of agreement they come to with the EU. Without knowing the eventual model that will be chosen to determine the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it is difficult to predict what Brexit will mean for the environment. 

If the UK was to go through a ‘soft Brexit’ and adopt the Norwegian Model, the majority of the EU environmental policies would have to remain in place in the UK’s domestic laws. The UK will only be able to take back control of some policy areas such as agriculture and fisheries, which have major environmental significance. However, if the UK goes through a ‘hard Brexit’ and leaves without a deal, it would have the right to choose its own level of environmental protection. Although the previous Environmental Secretary, Michael Gove, has given assurance that the UK’s new environmental laws will in fact be strengthened and improved after leaving, it is important to see these words being put into action. 

While there are different arguments for which would be the better route for the government to take, according to a risk analysis of UK environmental policies post-Brexit, the Norwegian Model poses the lowest level of risk to the present standard of environment protection. As mentioned earlier, the UK would still be required to follow most of the EU’s high standards of environmental regulations, and it would be easier to predict the post-Brexit impact on the environment since there would be little to no change apart from a few exceptions. Furthermore, the UK is a leader in implementing  green initiatives within the EU and their strong scientific research has been a significant contributor to understanding environmental issues. The EU may struggle to maintain this standard now that the UK has left and it is therefore in both their interests to come to a mutually beneficial deal. However, as the Norwegian Model allows the UK to maintain access to the single market, it would likely have to contribute to the European Budget, making the Model a very unlikely choice for the UK government. 

Conversely, a ‘no deal’ Brexit poses the highest risk to the present standard of environment protection. This route gives the UK full sovereignty over its environmental regulations and could possibly give rise to some inconsistencies within legislation during the period in which alternative policies are still being processed and implemented. Furthermore, having been known as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ before they joined the EU, giving the UK full control could pose significant risks and spark political resistance. However, there is also a chance that the government will decide to keep the existing regulations; changing regulations may create uncertainty and have a negative effect on local businesses and communities. Leaving without a deal does not necessarily mean that the UK will adopt a lower standard of environment protection policies. As mentioned earlier, the government has actually promised a higher standard of environmental protection but this will only be proven once plans are put into place. Otherwise, they will be constrained to uphold international laws which have a lower standard than those of the EU. 

What Next? The Post-Brexit Environment

Uncertainty surrounding Brexit remains, as does the question of what will happen to the environment post-departure. As Boris Johnson has emphasised that the UK is prepared for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it seems the more likely outcome. The UK will be under no obligation to uphold EU regulations after the transition period and therefore, the impact on the environment depends entirely on whether the UK government decides to maintain or improve its current regulations, or follow only the minimum regulations as stated by international law. 

Featured image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street

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