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Do Google's zero carbon footprint claims stack up?

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 15 September 2020, 9:42 am

It has over 114,000 employees around the world and a network of power-hungry data centres serving up apps and data to billions of users. 

But Google this week claimed that it has not only become carbon neutral across its entire business, a feat it says it actually achieved in 2007, but also balanced the carbon equation for the entire history of the company, back to 1998.

How did it do it? In an update yesterday, the chief executive of Alphabet/Google, Sundar Pichai, said Google had become the first major company to do this in part "through the purchase of high-quality carbon offsets". 

"As of today, we have eliminated Google's entire carbon legacy (covering all our operational emissions before we became carbon neutral in 2007)," he wrote in a blog post that also signalled big investments in renewables for the coming years.

"We estimate that the commitments we're making today will directly generate more than 20,000 new jobs in clean energy and associated industries, in America and around the world, by 2025," he added.

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Google has been buying increasing amounts of renewable energy

100% clean energy by 2030

Google has a target of switching to completely renewable energy use for its campuses and data centres, 24/7 around the world by 2030.

"This is far more challenging than the traditional approach of matching energy usage with renewable energy, but we're working to get this done by 2030." 

Google essentially aims to have hydropower, solar, wind and other renewable sources directly powering all of its operations, all of the time, by the end of the decade.

That would be an impressive achievement, given the tardiness of some governments and regional authorities to replace fossil fuels with renewables. But does yesterday's claim of wiping the carbon slate clean back to 1998, helped with the use of carbon offsets, really stack up? 

Well, Google hasn't specifically said what carbon offset projects it funds. A decade ago, it revealed that they range "from landfill gas projects in Caldwell County, NC, and Steuben County, NY, to animal-waste management systems in Mexico and Brazil. Our funding helps make it possible for equipment to be installed that captures and destroys the methane gas produced as the waste decomposes.

"The idea behind an offset is that we pay someone to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in a specific, measurable way, thus offsetting an equal climate impact on our side," Google explained.

Independent scrutiny

Google reports its carbon reduction efforts to CDP, a UK-based charity that runs disclosures of environmental targets.

In its 2019 environmental report, Google notes: "Our report received an A score from CDP for the past five years, and for the past four years, we earned a spot on CDP's Climate A List, which recognizes top reporting companies."

Google has done well on carbon reduction in recent years through large purchases of renewable energy, leaving a smaller portion to be dealt with through offsets.

"In 2018, our gross Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions were 4.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2 e), but because of our renewable energy purchases, our net GHG emissions were reduced by 3.7 million tons to 750 thousand tCO2 e, the company notes

"Due to growth in our business, our operational emissions increased 30% over the past year.36 After accounting for our carbon offset purchases, our net operational carbon emissions were zero."

In any case, carbon offsets were described by Google as an "interim measure" to get to carbon neutrality. The future is all about moving to 100% renewable energy sources and increasing efficiency to lower electricity use across its business.

Part of that involves Google investing in renewable energy production efforts directly itself - 5 GW (gigawatts) of production capacity in "manufacturing regions by 2030". Google claims this is "the amount of emissions equal to taking more than 1 million cars off the road each year".

Greenpeace has praised Google over the other major tech companies on its carbon reduction efforts and added a plaudit yesterday.

"By becoming the first major tech company to commit to power its data centres with carbon-free energy around the clock, Google is setting a new high-bar for the sector: a break-up with fossil fuels altogether," Elizabeth Jardim, Greenpeace USA Senior Corporate Campaigner said.

Hypocrisy points

While Microsoft also won praise from Greenpeace, Amazon trails the pack according to Greenpeace.

"While each company earns hypocrisy points, Amazon is trailing the pack on climate action. And to make matters worse-rather than rise to the challenge, Amazon is currently threatening employees who speak out on its climate plan," wrote Greenpeace corporate campaigner, Elizabeth Jardim.

While acknowledging their carbon reduction efforts, Greenpeace has one big bone of contention with Big Tech - their assistance of oil and gas companies with artificial intelligence technology to aid the discovery and exploitation of new fossil fuel sources.

On that front, Google has also moved, saying in May that it "will not ... build custom AI/ML algorithms to facilitate upstream extraction in the oil and gas industry".


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