Should Wikimedia buy RECs?

Should the Wikimedia Foundation do something about climate change? Here’s what I said on foundation-l:

Given the lack of political will to make deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, and the pitiful excuses politicians make for inaction; given the present nature of the debate, where special interests fund campaigns aimed at stalling any progress by appealing to the ignorance of the public; given the nature of the Foundation, an organisation which raises its funds and conducts most of its activities in the richest and most polluting country in the world: I think there is an argument for voluntary reduction of emissions by the Foundation.

I don’t mean by buying tree-planting or efficiency offsets, of which I am deeply skeptical. I think the best way for Wikimedia to take action on climate change would be by buying renewable energy certificates (RECs). Buying RECs from new wind and solar electricity generators is a robust way to reduce CO2 emissions, with minimal danger of double-counting, forward-selling, outright fraud, etc., problems which plague the offset industry.

If Domas Mituzas is correct, and Wikimedia uses on the order of 100kW for its servers, then buying a matching number of RECs would be a small portion of our hosting budget. If funding is nevertheless a problem, then we could have a restricted donation drive, and thereby get a clear mandate from our reader community.

Our colocation facilities would not need to do anything, such as changing their electricity provider. We would, however, need monitoring of our total electricity usage, so that we would know how many RECs to buy.

I’m not appealing to the PR benefits here, or to the way this action would promote the climate change cause in general. I’m just saying that as an organisation composed of rational, moral people, Wikimedia has as much responsibility to act as does any other organisation or individual.

Ultimately, the US will need to reduce its per-capita emissions by around 90% by 2050 to have any hope of avoiding catastrophe (see e.g. table 9.3 in the Garnaut Review, and chapter 4.3 for more context). Nature doesn’t have exemptions or loopholes, we can’t continue emitting by moving economic activity from corporations to charities.


  1. Energy offsets are good but the way to really make a difference is to select our co-location host based on how low their server room energy signature is.

    There is a lot you can do in the design of a server location to reduce energy use but the cost saving due to reduced energy costs is usually small compared to other costs. We can help make low-energy a selling point by insisting we use low energy partners and by letting them use our endorsement in their advertising.

    Just as we did with the low energy hosting service we use in europe.

  2. Interesting post!

    I think this brings up an interesting ethical question: should a non-profit company make non-core charitable donations that its thinks are ethical?

    To play devil’s advocate for a minute:
    Working off of the assumption that man-made global warming was real and imminent, the Copenhagen Consensus determined that it would not be worth addressing before any of the world’s other top 50 problems since so much money could affect the outcome so little. Here is a really interesting TED talk on that:
    (the talk is interesting on many other levels.. highly recommended)

    Your last sentence says “we can’t continue emitting by moving economic activity from corporations to charities”. But isn’t Wikimedia a charity? Or is it a company? It’s really both 🙂 which puts it in a very strange place ethically.

    Wikimedia’s job is to try to sustain its project cost-effectively & many of the donors might think this is a waste of money and is buying offsets would essentially be a donation to a completely separate charity which they might not all agree is a worthwhile cause (because of the Copenhagen Consensus or outright denial of man-made global warming, etc.).

    On the other hand, there is a reasonable level of power you just have to trust a company with if you chose to donate to them. I’m sure donors don’t expect you to use slave-labor for your programming team even if that would be less expensive.

    In this sense, my personal take would be that you could treat this more as a built-in cost* of doing ethical business rather than a separate donation if there is essentially universal buy-in among the decision-makers at Wikimedia.

    If that’s what the Foundation decides and the decision is made public (so that donors know what they’re contributing to) that seems reasonable regardless of it being controversial.

    *: [Simultaneously, I wouldn’t recommend it if it seems like it would turn off a lot of potential donors… lost donations (if there would be any) should be factored into the costs.]

    • “But isn’t Wikimedia a charity? Or is it a company? It’s really both 🙂 which puts it in a very strange place ethically.”

      If you think it’s both, then I chose my words poorly. My point was that there shouldn’t be a category of organisation which is exempt from ethical practice. If there was such a category, then society would be tempted to reduce costs by moving activities into that category — say, by shutting down for-profit websites and starting up non-profit ones.

      You make the point that there may or may not be a “business case” for this action, in terms of the impact on donations. It seems that you are calling Wikimedia a company in order to make this point. I would say that, as a charity, Wikimedia’s overarching goal is not to maximise donations. Its goal is to do good in the world. So unlike in a business, ethical considerations can be weighed against financial ones on equal footing.

      • I must have also been unclear… I actually was implying that since Wikimedia is a charity, it’s primary responsibility (to donors) is to work as much as possible towards its mission statement – which I don’t know but I’m guessing has something to do with Jimmy’s quote about making the sum of human knowledge available for free.

        I just wanted to bring up the idea that donating to buy offsets isn’t core to that & thus might be an interesting ethical question.

        My goal was more to bring up the issue as something to think about. Buying offsets certainly wouldn’t dissuade me from donating (since it sounds like it’d be a small part of the budget).

        If this were a type of decision that became a significant line-item then my thought would be that I would like to donate to one charity at a time… meaning I’d like to choose how much I would give to making the sum of human knowledge free and how much I would give to climate-change concerns relative to how important I feel each one is to me.

        Kind of a moot point now though since it appears that someone who actually objects to buying RECs has brought up the point (as well as my Copenhagen Consensus thought). I’ll let that thread carry the conversation since I’m more of a curious observer waiting to see what you decide rather than someone who actively thinks you should go one way or the other.

  3. I think this would be a good idea *only* if people specifically donated to it. When people donate to Wikimedia they are donating for the cause of helping Wikimedia, and often Wikipedia in particular. We need to consider that they, the donors, are not making these environmental considerations when they donate, and responsible use of their money should take into account the intent that they had when making the donation. I don’t think donors would be particularly happy with the idea that their money wouldn’t go entirely to Wikimedia, but instead go to some environmental cause. I know I wouldn’t be happy with that were I a donor, and that’s given that I’m relatively in agreement with the whole “green” movement. If there are climate-change-skeptic donors out there—mightn’t we alienate them?

    Frankly, I don’t see where the benefit to Wikimedia is if it’s done independently. It’s not within the mission, it’s money that could be used for other things, it won’t have a significant PR impact, et cetera. A better idea would be to get the environmental groups to push this: donate to us in this Wikimedia drive, and Wikipedia will be greener. Let the Foundation endorse it, and donors get a more straightforward idea of what they’re donating to: a specific fund to keep Wikimedia green.

  4. Pingback: Response to Aryeh Gregor about climate change action « Tim Starling’s blog

  5. How about just linking to a “buy a credit in our name” wiki-advertisement? I can make a charitable donation to my local library in the name of the foundation, I can also buy and not use a REC. Since the number bought would be a function of donor interest, and none of them would be “used,” strictly speaking, we won’t have to measure our own usage.

    Personally, I’m probably more inclined to make a donation to my local library’s computer services department than to buy a REC, but that’s just me.

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