Upsetting Carbon Offsets in the Cloud

Data centres, real responsibility and artificial intelligence

I will not go into a lengthy argument on carbon offsets in this article. However what I would say is that I am upset. This was brought on by an absolutely brilliant article by Anne Pasek:

One of her central arguments is the example of fungible mediation:

“…a set of semiotic strategies that serve to translate local relations into generic commodities that can be bought and sold at a distance, obfuscating the question of accountability in favor of the formal logics of accounting.”

She refers to carbon buying practices as: “…quantified accounting in which environmental goods are aggregated and symbolically negated through cultural techniques that deracinate and depoliticize relations outside of the ledger.”

How much can we pollute as long we balance it with something else? I mean certainly this is a question to ask oneself – then again you can buy your own personal offset. A startup has made that possible.

Combat climate change with the click of a button?

One nation that has taken a different approach is Finland that pledges to be carbon neutral by 2035 without offsets.

Although I am upset about offsets it is hard not to like a lot of the projects that are being initiated by large technology companies.

Would I want them to stop doing those? Of course not.

However the fact that this balance-sheet approach is taken hides or obfuscates the process or responsibility. If every company regardless of its pollution can say they are 100% powered by renewable energy due to energy offset projects — this is of course a highly selective version of the truth.

Particularly interesting was it when Anne referred to Microsoft Cloud’s ways of dealing with their balancing act:

“Carbon neutrality, drawing on the logic of double — entry bookkeeping to negate the contents of one column with the contents of another, was therefore a strategy far more appropriate to the cloud’s material demands. […] Their ledger could be balanced with trees planted in Kenya, a forest saved from harvest in Madagascar, or housing insulation in Mongolia. It has been. […] From the Valdivian Coastal Reserve of Southern Chile, for example, Microsoft has purchased many tons of carbon credits generated from the counterfactual action of a logging road left unbuilt. In the process it has also, and most visibly, purchased narratives of wildlife preservation, sustainable development, and female entrepreneurship.”

As mentioned in the introduction I cannot claim to have an answer here, however I simply find it upsettting to hear about these offsets, and think they are important to discuss. Anne Pasek have done so in a highly interesting way and has a thought-provoking piece both on how we consider the cloud and of these practices.

The question is will any companies working with artificial intelligence take a more conscious stand on how they deal with these when buying computer?

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 330. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. My focus for day 300–400 is about AI, hardware and the climate crisis.

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.