Computing, Climate change and all your relationships

Generally speaking, it’s a small, but growing group of folk who seem to interested in the intersection between climate change and tech.

Earlier in May, I came across Nabil Hussein‘s talk, Computing, Climate Change and All Your Relationships, and boy is it a breath of fresh air – climate change for me is a very much an issue about fairness, and treating humans with basic decency, regardless of where in the world they are.

This is and remains on of the reasons I’m attracted to the web – as Tim Berners Lee said, it’s supposed to be a tool for everyone, not just a small group, and that human potential it allows us to unlock is a source of continuous wonder for me.

Tim Berners Lee, in the London Olympics, with his cameo for the world wide web

I’ve seen a fair few talks, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone in tech talk about climate change in terms of the sheer numbers of people who don’t go to tech conferences who are affected, and how it disproportionately affects people least able to cope with the wrenching changes it’s bringing about.

There was one slide in particular that was particularly effective here:

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 18.47.33.png
Comparing the Global North (14% popn, 73% income) and Global South (86% popn, 27% income)

Challenging Bret Viktor’s “options” approach

This is also the first talk I’ve seen that critically engages with Bret Victor’s essay, What Can an Technologist do about Climate Change?

We’re seeing how policy makers in the White House have been undoing progress they’ve made, and you see the same patterns in the UK, with fracking over building a local renewables.

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 19.00.41.png

That said, I can’t say I’m totally behind this approach. and I think, having a binary here is oversimplifying things. There’s absolutely cases where in the global North you’re seeing terrible decisions, but there are also cases where you are seeing progress being made, and that helps set the tone for future, more progressive, climate friendly policy.

For example, I see the investment by Germany in renewables over the last 20 years pretty important for decentralising how power is generated over here: both to bring down costs sufficiently to ‘create options for people’, and also counter the concentration of power among the incumbent providers of energy, and encouraing many more small scale producers of energy from renewables.

I guess the counterpoint here is that China, which (on this map at least, is included in the global south) has also played a huge part in shifting the economics of solar, but that’s hardly been a bottom-up approach. It’s been a very deliberate policy decision, the same way China’s National Sword policy was a top down decision to stop importing so much waste from the global north.

Anyway, it’s totally worth 40 minutes of your time if you have a passing interest in climate change, and you work in tech. There’s also a super handy transcript online too. Enjoy!

Losing earth and capitalism and the NY times

I’ve just finished reading this gargantuan piece from the NY Times, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, which tells the story in the late 80’s of how we almost ended up with meaningful, binding agreements globally to reduce CO2 emissions, when doing so would have drastically reduced the cost of dealing with climate change in the 21st century.

As you’d imagine from as big ticket piece from the likes of the Grey lady, it’s a gripping story. I learned loads of new things about how the narratives used for the global response to ozone depletion was so swift compared with relative foot dragging on climate change, and how long it had been on the radar of the US government.

It’s also somewhat heartbreaking to know how close we came, and towards the end, I found it pretty difficult to come away without wanting to blame one of the political operators in the Bush administration,  James Sununu, for effectively scuttling the negotations when there seemed to be something approaching consensus on reducing CO2 emissions.

In fact, he’s the closest thing the story really has to an antagonist, which is pretty impressive given you have Exxon in the room for half the substantive meetings mentioned.

There’s a good response from Naomi Klein, which I think provides some useful context about the voices involved:

Throughout Rich’s accounting, we hear nothing from those political leaders in the Global South who were demanding binding action in this key period and after, somehow able to care about future generations despite being human. The voices of women, meanwhile, are almost as rare in Rich’s text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker — and when we ladies do appear, it is mainly as long-suffering wives of tragically heroic men.

It’s not that surprising that the New York Times might be a bit US-centric, but one other thing that hadn’t been so obvious to me was the political climate itself , and the rise of neoliberalism – these were the pretty much the heydays of Thatcher and Reagan:

the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.

It’s 30,000 words long, so basically a novella, but if you’re interested in anyway by the climate, it’s worth a read.

Things I recently learned about greening aviation

Later this month, I’m flying across the world to Bali, see my some of my sister’s side of the family for the first time in 9 years.

This has led me to do more research into how the CO2 impact of flying can change, both over the short term, and the long term.

Can we just have a Tesla, but for planes?

Surely electrification would save us, right? I mean, it worked for Tesla cars, and electricity you can generate in non-CO2 emitting ways.

I initially thought this, until I read a bit more, and saw this video, and now I’m much less convinced. It’s largely about energy density, and how it affects plane design, and gives an idea of the unforgiving physics involved.

Right now most planes run on kerosene, which is a cheap-ish fossil fuel, that has an energy density of around 37 megajoules per litre. This page on wikipedia gives some idea of the different energy densities of fuels you might have heard of.

If you follow that link you’ll see batteries right now have much lower energy densities, of between 0.9 and 4.5 megajoules per kilo. So, you’d need waaaaay more batteries to provide the the same amount of energy to the plane, to give it the power needed to take off and stay in the air. These extra batteries make the plane heavier, which makes it need more energy to take off, which means you need more batteries, and so on.

So, we’re stuck with fossil fuels?

Maybe not, but for the next 5 years, I don’t think we’ll see electric planes replacing long haul airliners, and planes have a very, very long life span.

My best guess is that we might by take excess electricity on the grid and use that to synthesize compounds that offer the same qualities as kerosene. I’m not an expert at all in this, but this post on the aviation stackexchange was pretty useful for understanding why planes use kerosene in the first place.

So kerosene basically became the standard turbine fuel because it’s:

  • cheap: kerosene makes up a rather large fraction of crude oil. When you measure your fuel load in tons a few cents per litre makes a difference.
  • safe to handle: relatively non-toxic, doesn’t ignite all that easily
  • storable and transportable in common structural metals
  • doesn’t clog up the engine

Until we have something like this, that provides the same energy density, has similar properties like above, and can be used by the existing fleets of planes, I can’t see much change.

Maybe we change the planes instead?

I recently read the Drawdown, a fascinating, if somewhat at times hubristic book about the top 100 interventions possible to reduce, and even reverse global warming. They cover aviation, and provide some figures, along with a summary of the new designs that the industry is working on.


If you’re curious about why this plane above looks so different, Real Engineering once again has nice, accessible video about the design decisions going into the different shapes the planes are taking.

Changing the planes will help, and is likely to happen anyway given how much the costs of aviation fuel affect profits, but I

What can we do about all the emissions they create?

It was a bit depressing to read that our best hope for aviation is focusing on efficiency, to reduce the amount of nasty crap being emitted, rather than being saved by the magic of zero emissions, flying EVs – as planes, when they’re up the air, do loads of damage environmentally, as they emit CO2 and water vapour.

Also, aviation is set to grow massively as populations of low and middle income countries start wanting to fly like we have been the last 30 years – and the growth isn’t really expected to come from Europe and North America.

Finally, and this is the most contentious part – I’m not sure it’s realistic to just expect everyone to stop flying with some outright ban – the majority of climate change eco-warriors I know still seem to fly, and even if you choose to travel by surface transport, the costs in time and money still don’t make it very accessible.

I’ve run a company where I traveled almost exclusively by train for about 5 years, and it would definitely have been much faster and cheaper just to fly, had it not been a policy decision I had made.

This points, to doing things to offset the fact that damage is happening, by sequestering carbon elsewhere in the system, and focussing efforts to reduce emissions by a comparable amount elsewhere, where it’s more cost-effective to do so.


This makes me think that right now, our best bets, seem to be:

  • push for policy that makes the costs of aviation borne by those who fly the most, like the FreeRide campaign proposes. We’d fly less in total, but it wouldn’t penalise occasional, family flights as much as the dude flying each week to his house in Bordeaux from London.
  • make offsetting, or similar measures to account for the environmental costs more commonplace
  • focus on finding, or synthesizing alternatives to fossil fuels like kerosene, where we can account for CO2 emitted, and sequestered through the lifecycle of creating, and using the fuel

For what it’s worth, my mind isn’t made up – and I’d welcome some discussion in the comments about our options for transport.

I’d love to hear if battery energy density could make EVs for passenger aviation more feasible, and if whether developments in hydogen, mean it’s possible to see family members without implicitly making a value judgement that their lives are worth more than people in places more likely to be hit by climate first, by flying to see them.

Anyway, hope this shed some light for others.


Debugging in python with pdb and dropping into a ‘proper’ session

If you code in python, there’s a reasonably high chance you’ve heard of dropping into a debugger with something like pdb, or if you prefer ipython, ipdb.

It’s a really, really handy skill, and if you haven’t done this before, this 40 minute video gives a good overview of how it can help you:

But what if I want to do stuff on more than one line?

One nice thing about the debugger like this is that it puts you in a REPL like environment, where you can see what the values of various variables are, and call functions to see what they returned values might be.

The thing is, if you want to use a loop, or an if/then construct, you’ll get a stroppy message like so, when you try to break onto the next line:

for obj in collection_of_objects:
*** SyntaxError: unexpected EOF while parsing

This isn’t great – if you’re trying to investigate why code is working the way it’s working, having some basic features normally offered  by the language makes life much easier – part of the point of dropping into a debugger in the first place is to use the language you’ve written code in to understand the what’s going on in the code better.

Oh, interact – that’s what it’s for

This is where interact comes in. if you’re in a pdb session, you can type interact, and  you’ll end up in a proper python session where you have all the abilities you’d have with a regular python prompt, like loops, if/thens and so on.

Once you’re done, hit ctrl+d and you’ll end up back in the debugging session you were in when you first started with pdb.

I’ve been programming python professionally since 2008, and I discovered this today. Oh well, better late than never, right?

Trying out a sustainability focussed lean coffee in Berlin

Through being involved in a democracy themed hackday last year, I ended up working at Factory Berlin, and using it as a coworking space. At a sustainability focussed event, I met another member Cherie Birkner of Sustainable Fashion Matterz, and we’re testing out a a lean coffee next week. Read on to find out the when, where, what and how.

What’s lean coffee?

Lean coffee is a format for an event when you have a set of people with a shared interest, and you want introduce some light structure to make it useful for everyone who comes.

I’ve pilfered borrowed the pictures from

The general plan is:

First, rock up, and if you have an idea or question you’d like to discuss under the theme of sustainability, briefly introduce it


Next, vote on the ideas together

Marking the ideas with sticky dots, or a marker is fine.

The idea here is to get an idea from everyone present what’s most relevant or interesting to everyone present.

Then divide the total time by the number of ideas it’s reasonable to discuss

Depending on how long you have, you might restrict the topics so there’s a chance to discuss them in sufficient depth.

Finally, spend the time discussing them

Because you’ve already got some idea of priority, the conversations are most useful to the most people.

Okay, that sounds like I might give it a go. When is it?

Next Wednesday June 6th, at 9am at Factory Berlin, at the Görlitzer campus, until around 10.

This is an experiment, so we’re trying to keep it small, til we know how best to run it, which is why we’re not trying to run it as an official Factory event (I think you need at least 15 people for one of them, and we’re trying to keep it lightweight and easy to manage for now).

It’s also totally okay if you’re just curious and you don’t have a thing you want to talk about yet – we don’t have long, so we won’t be able to discuss everything anyway.

If there’s more interest than we have space for, we’ll organise a follow up event depending.

We started this mainly as a thing to meet other Factory members with similar interests, but if it seems interesting to you, you don’t need to be a member to come along – you can come as an invited guest.

Shoot me an email, or hit me up on twitter @mrchrisadams.

Come along!

Image uploaded from iOS.jpg

See you there!






Quick notes from the UX Book Club Berlin

o, I’ve just come back home from the most recent UX Book Blub Berlin, where we discussed Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries” by Steve Portigal. I got a lot out of the evening, and agreed to share a few links to thing we discussed, but doesn’t let you share comments over a certain length, so I’m posting it here instead.


The first is the online ResearchOps Community (well, slack channel mainly), that Kat, Anja and I are in – it’s online, at:

Kat and I are also organising a workshop on June 22nd, which you can learn more about at the link below:

Here’s the link to where you can sign up

Field Study Handbook


I think it was Franco who also mentioned the field study handbook – a colossal tome that’s considered the final word in immersive research.

It’s what I’d read up on if I ended up doing more of this kind of research. It also carries a formidable price tag of one hundred and twenty five bucks.

More here –

Testessen and speed dating for testing products

I think it was Steve who mentioned Test Essen, a sort of speed dating / user testing event to get quick feedback on products and prototypes. I hadn’t heard of it before. See more below:

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 23.52.25.png



OMGDPR and research

Finally, I briefly mentioned an unconference called OMGDPR that took place few weeks back.

If there’s interest, I’d be up for organising a small event to chat to other researchers, to get a better idea of how it’s affecting their processes, as:

  1. the law is new
  2. it’s effects are far reaching
  3. there are all kinds of question I have about how it affects how we do research, and I figure it might be useful exploring them with others

Anyway, catch y’all at the next Book club!

How much CO2 can you save when you remove ad-tracking from news sites?

Now that GPDR has landed, we’re seeing companies serving EU specific versions of their site to EU users, which in some cases, serve a user experience which is cleaner, simpler and faster loading.

Some are much smaller over the wire too. So, because moving data uses servers,and those servers use electricity, and that electricity usually comes from burning coal, I’ve had a go at doing some basic calculations to work out what the CO2 reductions might be if these became the norm.

TLDR – For a site like USAtoday, it looks like running the ‘GPDR-lite’ version as the default would represent CO2 emissions savings equivalent to an entire European persons’s annual carbon footprint, each month.

How I arrive at these numbers

I need to stress right at the beginning – these figures I’m about to share are very rough, and I don’t pretend that they’re in any final, accurate form at all.

I’m hoping to share this to help get a better idea for how you might work out the CO2 emissions associated with transferring data in a more rigorous fashion,  but also because I think these emissions are worth discussing, and I can’t find any numbers like this online yet.

First, our smaller site:

Let’s take Hadley’s tweet here – she’s referring to a the EU specific version of the USA Today site, which is about 500kb, compared to the full size, ads and tracking site which weighs in at 5mb site instead:

What kind of energy footprint does this represent? Let’s take a rough estimate of the total daily traffic for the USAToday from EasyCounter (we could use Alexa if we wanted to pay for more accurate traffic results)

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 16.45.50.png

Looking here, we get 3.77 million daily page views.

So, if we wanted an idea of daily bandwidth, we might multiply page size by daily page views.

So, lets take a 5MB page, and multiply it 3.77 million times to represent the page views.

This gives us a figure, that, when we round it to the nearest one hundred gigabytes, is about 18,400 gigabytes of data per day.

How much energy is that?

Now, it’s been really hard to find reliable numbers to convert bandwidth to energy usage when I’ve looked before, but the best freely available figures I’ve found are from work I found via Jonathan Koomey’s blog, where he shares something like this:

This article derives criteria to identify accurate estimates over time and provides a new estimate of 0.06 kWh/GB for 2015. By retroactively applying our criteria to existing studies, we were able to determine that the electricity intensity of data transmission (core and fixed-line access networks) has decreased by half approximately every 2 years since 2000 (for developed countries),

So, this is semi-throwaway blog post and it’s a Sunday, and so for the purposes of getting a ballpark figure, I’m going to cheat and just project forward two years to 2017, and say 2018 is close enough to 2017 for me to use 0.03 kWh/GB.

Okay, how much carbon dioxide is that?

For a ballpark figure like this, we’d take the total energy needed to transfer our 18,400 gigabytes per day, then multiply that by our 0.03 kilowatt hours per gigabyte, then multiply that by the CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour.

Let’s get our CO2 per kilowatt hour figure so we can do this

In the US, where most of the USAToday audience is likely to be, a fair amount of coal is used to generate power, so when I was dumping some numbers into this jupyter notebook, I made a guesstimate figure of 0.45 kilograms of CO2 emitted per kilowatt hour of electricity generated.

After checking it against the emissions index website to check against some actual numbers, it turns out I was off, but not that far off.

Their figure is 432 kilograms per megawatt hour, which is about 0.43 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour.

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 16.56.42.png

I’ve been rounding at each stage here, to make it a bit easier to keep the numbers a bit easier to remember.

However, I’m going to pull the actual number from the jupyter notebook, which when rounded again, gives us 248.5kg of CO2 per day, or a little under 7.5 tonnes per month more or less.

Translating this into something  more tangible

If we had the lighter, GPDR friendly, ad-and-tracking-free version of the site as the norm, if we just looked at the bandwidth savings, then we’d be saving something like the annual carbon footprint of a typical European, according to the World Bank, every month.

Or if you prefer, something like a flight between New York and Chicago every day.

If this is interesting to you, there’s some more in this jupyter notebook on github.

Plug time – the planet friendly web guide

I’m looking for people to work with and explore this kind of stuff with me.


Well, I work in tech, and it seems like loads of our existing tools, and practices can be re-purposed to bring about reductions in CO2 emissions in our industry AND make the digital products we create work better for our users.

If you design infra for services,where you source power, and how you provision your resources, to match your use (i.e. scaling) has an impact.

If you design clients, or apps, then how send data over the wire has an impact (i.e. WPO, et al).

If you design the business model, or how you get feedback from stakeholders, or how you travel to do all this, then decisions you make here have an impact too.

Let’s chat

If this is interesting, please do get in touch, as I’m trying to:

  1. get a free, open source guide together around the subject at
  2. prototype a workshop (one remote, one in Berlin), to help organisations identify where they can make these reductions (and usually, save money or reduce waste along the way)

My contact page lists the usual ways to reach me, and if the guide seems fun, there’s a contributor page there too. T