Row over Google zero carbon footprint claim

Google earthy: The company claims to have captured natural gas escaping from pig farms and landfill sites

Can corporations solve the climate crisis? Google yesterday claimed to have compensated for all the carbon it has ever created. But critics say business cannot be trusted to save the planet.

It sounds like the beginning of a sci-fi film: a large cylinder, about the size of a shipping container, is winched up from the seabed just off the Orkney Islands. But rather than a hi-tech alien visitor, the cylinder contains data servers — 855 of them, to be exact.

They were put there in 2018 by Microsoft as an experiment in energy efficiency. More and more servers are needed to store the world’s online data, and the amount of energy used to run these servers is rising fast. If the servers could be kept cool, less energy would be required to run them.

Depositing the servers in the constantly cold waters of the North Sea has now proved to be energy-efficient – so, Microsoft saves money and the planet also benefits.

And it is not the only tech company trumpeting its green credentials: yesterday, Google declared that it had eliminated its entire carbon footprint.

The company is claiming that it has compensated for all its emissions since it was founded in 1998. In effect, it is saying that it has never released any carbon dioxide. But is that really the case?

Google met this target by buying “carbon offsets”. These work like a kind of certificate, stating that the company has funded a project that has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by a certain amount.

The same amount of carbon dioxide is then eliminated from its own carbon footprint. If Google pays for a project that reduces carbon emissions by one tonne, then its own emissions are officially lowered by one tonne. Seemingly, it can buy back all the carbon it has emitted in the last two decades.

But critics of carbon offsets have described them as a form of greenwashing – and the controversial counteracting measures are very difficult to prove.

One of the most prominent critics of carbon offsets is Canadian journalist Naomi Klein. She argues that there is not enough scrutiny of the projects that are counted as offsets. Sometimes they even turn out to be harmful to the environment and to indigenous people, who have genuinely sustainable lifestyles.

Google does recognise that carbon offsets are only an “interim solution”. Its long-term aim is to stop buying offsets and maintain its carbon neutrality directly, using only renewable energy .

But this raises a further issue. Some insist that governments, not corporations, should be driving the transition to a green society.

Unlike corporations, democratic governments need to win the support of their electors for their climate policy. As a result governments have to be transparent; corporations do not have to be. Most people have no say in how corporations go about it. They cannot check Google’s own calculations of its carbon footprint.

Google has an incentive to appear green. In recent years, charitable search engines like Ecosia, which spends 80% of its profits planting trees, have gained in popularity. By stressing its environmental credentials, Google can fend off this competition.

So, can corporations really solve the climate crisis?

Green giants

Some say, yes, of course. By investing in projects that reduce carbon emissions, such as schemes to capture and convert methane gas at landfill sites, tech giants are undoubtedly reducing the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Their defenders argue that thanks to market incentives, corporations do better than governments at calculating the value of environmental schemes.

Others are less convinced. Tech companies have a market incentive to look green, but not actually to be green. Many even donate money to lobbying organisations that have opposed action on climate. And many pay minimal taxes, starving governments of revenues that could be put towards environmental schemes.

You Decide

  1. Is it worth trying to reduce your individual carbon footprint, even though it might only make the tiniest of tiny differences?
  2. Can individuals and companies be expected to make sacrifices for the good of the planet, or do we need governments to do it on our behalf?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are living 100 years from now and the world economy is carbon neutral. Write a postcard to your present self, describing your daily life.
  2. You are the World Emperor with absolute power over everybody for ten minutes. Any laws that you decree can never be overturned. Write down the one law that you would like to announce.

Some People Say...

“However small or simple our actions may seem, they sow what future generations will reap.”

Gema Osorio, Mexican climate activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that climate breakdown is real and being driven by human activity. António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has warned that we only have until 2030 to avert global catastrophe, and has called for “ambition and urgency” in our response. In fact, the effects of climate breakdown are already making themselves known. According to Nasa, 19 of the warmest 20 years in modern history have taken place since 2001.
What do we not know?
People disagree over the best way of dealing with the climate crisis. Some have argued that restricting emissions will slow economic growth and harm the world’s poorest people. They claim that using technology to reduce the greenhouse effect is the fairest solution to the climate crisis. Others point out that such technology does not yet exist, and that the poorest are the most at risk from climate breakdown. They insist that we must switch to more sustainable lifestyles now to avert disaster.

Word Watch

Orkney Islands
A large group of islands north of Scotland. Orkney was the last part of the modern United Kingdom to be ruled by the Vikings, who called it Orkneyjar, until it was absorbed into the Kingdom of Scotland in 1472.
North Sea
The sea that separates Great Britain from Scandinavia. During the last Ice Age, a large landmass called Doggerland connected Britain with northern Europe, but it sank into the North Sea as a result of rising sea levels. It is thought that the seabed now holds the remains of ancient human settlements.
Carbon footprint
An estimate of the total quantity of greenhouse gases emitted by an organisation, community, or individual. It is used to calculate how sustainably we use our resources: the planet can absorb a certain amount of carbon dioxide back into forests and oceans, but at the current rate of global emissions we would need one-and-a-half Earths to sustain the world population.
Tonne
The tonne is a metric unit of mass equal to 1,000 kilograms. It is commonly referred to as a metric ton in the United States. The ton in an old-fashioned imperial measurement, equivalent to 0.9 of a tonne.
Greenwashing
This is when a company pretends to care about the environment for the sake of its image, while actually doing nothing to protect it. The term was coined by the American journalist Jay Westervelt in 1986.
Indigenous people
The original inhabitants of an area. Many groups of indigenous people have lived on their land for centuries, and scientists think that their lifestyles can teach us a great deal about sustainability.
Sustainable
Describes the kind of lifestyle that is in balance with the planet’s resources: it does not use more than is available in the long term.
Methane
A greenhouse gas thought to be about 28 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide.
Data server
A hardware platform in which data are organised and stored. In theory, the server can be placed anywhere at all, as the data can be accessed remotely.
Lobbying
Meeting politicians to persuade them to support or oppose legislation. Companies are often accused of paying lobbyists to convince politicians to oppose laws that would harm their profits.

Subjects

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