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Which big tech companies are carbon neutral and who’s aiming for net zero?

The 4th industrial revolution is becoming a huge driver of lower carbon emissions. So how realistic are carbon neutral aims given the growth of digital technology?

A dramatic fall in pollution in regions of the world locked down by coronavirus demonstrates the crucial role digital technology can play in cutting carbon emissions. Home working via the internet means economic activity can still thrive. One researcher has claimed that the reduced air pollution created by restricted travel during the lockdown in China may have saved between 50,000 and 75,000 lives.

This sheds new light on criticisms from environmentalists blaming the internet for the spiraling use of energy by data centres and the cloud, often for frivolous activities such as viewing cat videos and posting selfies on social media.

The data centre industry argues that the pandemic shows the internet offers a solution to climate change.

Reducing carbon emissions and compensating for them is going to be something we hear a lot more about over the next few years. With carbon targets now in place for many countries – such as the UK’s 2050 target – we’re moments from a seismic shift in how companies deal with carbon emissions.

What do carbon offsetting, carbon net zero, and other sustainability terms mean?

We all use energy to live our daily lives. Whether that’s your weekly supermarket shop delivered to your house, driving down the road, getting on a plane to go somewhere, or merely heating your house, it’s something you can’t avoid.

While there are many new forms of renewable energy like solar or wind, traditional fuels still play a big part in our daily lives whether we like it or not.

But before we can work out how to reduce our carbon impact as individuals or businesses, it’s worth defining the terms to begin with.

What is a “carbon footprint”?

Everyone has a carbon footprint. It refers to the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of your daily life and activities.

The lower your carbon footprint, the less damage you are doing to the planet. That could be as simple as turning your thermostat down a couple of degrees, cycling to the shops instead of taking the car, or changing your diet to eat less meat.

The global average person accounts for between 4-5 carbon tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

What is carbon offsetting?

Working out your individual carbon footprint is hard, although there are tools you can use to try and work it out. Remember, your carbon footprint is based on a number of factors, like whether you fly, drive a petrol or diesel car, or like to heat your house with all the windows open (you’d be surprised how many people do just that).

To try and reduce your carbon footprint beyond changes in your lifestyle, you can do something called “carbon offsetting”.

This is where you not only try and reduce your carbon impact, but actually try to offset your actions by investing in schemes that look to positively help the environment by lowering or reducing carbon emissions. That could be by planting trees for example.

It’s important to note though that carbon offsetting isn’t alone going to tackle climate change – we need to change our attitude to using energy and the way we live.

How do you go carbon neutral or even carbon negative?

Being carbon neutral is the claim that a company has offset the carbon it uses to do its daily activities by investing in a scheme or schemes in such a way that it has completely offset its business practices on the environment.

You or your company can do this by working out how much carbon you use on a yearly basis and then ensuring that you offset the same number in a scheme.

Companies can go even further though. Microsoft announced at the start of 2020 that it planned to go carbon negative by 2030, meaning that it will remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that it emits, and that it wants to have removed any carbon trace of the company on the earth since its inception in 1975 by 2050.

Carbon net zero vs carbon neutral?

While carbon neutral refers to the process of offsetting some of your energy usage, that’s taken many to believe that carbon net zero means you don’t do anything that would need to be offset in the first place. That’s not entirely true though. Net Zero does allow offsets, though under some definitions only of absolutely unavoidable emissions, and only through greenhouse gas removals (as opposed to avoidance).

In June 2019 the UK government committed to a target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 too. That means it has plans to reduce the entire UK’s emissions by 100 per cent from 1990 levels.

How do you mitigate your carbon footprint?

One of the most popular ways of mitigating or reducing your carbon footprint is to plant trees. It’s called mitigating because sadly the trees planted today won’t have an impact for another 20 years. Still something now is better than nothing tomorrow.

There are a number of schemes in the UK and the rest of the world that allow you to plant additional trees to offset your carbon usage now so that you can offset your usage today in the future.

In the UK, the government has developed a voluntary carbon standard called the Woodland Carbon Code, which ensures that each tree planted contributes to delivering real and additional carbon offsets. It also ensures that there is no double counting – once an offset is registered to a buyer, it cannot be claimed by anyone else going forward.

What is the Woodland Carbon Code?

It’s a voluntary standard for UK woodland creation projects where claims are made about the carbon dioxide the woodlands sequester.

The idea is that you buy measurable amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and schemes plant a number of trees that would equate to that number. On average it’s around 3-4 trees planted per tonne of carbon dioxide.

Some schemes, like The Woodland Trust (which we support) will insist you buy a specific number of credits, while others, like Forest Carbon, will let you buy single credits.

Every credit is registered on an open database allowing you to see who is buying credits and where those trees are subsequently planted.

What’s important is that the scheme insists on planting new trees, rather than just managing general forests.

Carbon offsetting without planting trees

It doesn’t have to be about just planting trees. There are a range of different carbon offset schemes from investing in wind energy to providing people with solar powered cookers that reduce the need for people to burn wood to cook in some countries.

Picking the right scheme is up to you and there are merits in all of them.

What are big tech firms doing about carbon footprint targets?

Humans have released more than two trillion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, over three-quarters of which is carbon dioxide emitted since the mid-1950s. That’s more than 50 billion metric tons of extra greenhouse gases each year. The problem has to be dealt with.

The key tech firms are some of the highest-profile businesses on the planet and dealing with carbon output is not just an aspiration, but a competitive necessity. Why? Because other companies that use services like Office 365, Google Apps (G Suite) or Amazon AWS also need to lower their carbon footprint and want their suppliers to be greener than green as a result.

Who’s going net zero?

Microsoft has led the way here. While the ambition of many is to reach “net zero” – essentially removing as much carbon each year as they emit – the Windows and Office behemoth said last year that it –and its supply chain – will be Carbon negative by 2030.

That not only means cancelling out emissions on a rolling basis, but it means removing cancelling out more carbon than it’s producing. By 2050, Microsoft says it will go a step further and “remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”

That’s some goal.

Here’s an explainer on how Microsoft is working out its emissions:

As part of this effort, Microsoft has established a climate innovation fund to companies “developing carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies”.

Amazon has an ambition of net zero carbon by 2040 which is 10 years later than Microsoft. To be fair, it is more difficult for Amazon to achieve that because of its reliance on power inefficient delivery vehicles which, of course, are currently mostly propelled using fossil fuels – though it’s developing alternatives. Amazon says its shipments will be net zero and is targeting that for 50 percent of all shipments by 2030.

Amazon says it is committed to using 100 percent renewable energy though isn’t there yet. The cloud arm of Amazon, known as AWS or Amazon Web Services, exceeded 50 percent renewable energy usage by 2018.

Amazon is mostly aiming to generate its renewable energy needs itself. The company has been ranked first in the U.S. by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) for corporate on-site solar panels. Amazon says that these offset 200 million miles of truck deliveries and is introducing more –  there are now 50 systems on top of fulfilment centre roofs globally, powering around 80 percent of the needs for each centre.

It’s also investing in wind farms – the company has over 70 current products generating more than 5.3 million MWh of energy annually.

Amazon also says its AWS data centres are also increasingly becoming more energy efficient themselves and are also using less drinking water for cooling, instead moving to recycled water using direct evaporative technology.

Apple says it has reduced its carbon emissions from operations by 64 percent since 2011 even though the company has quadrupled in size. However, it doesn’t yet have a long term target to be net zero or similar.

Reuse and recyle

Apple primarily pushes three green goals – 100 percent of its retail locations, offices and data centres use renewable energy. It’s “eliminated harmful chemicals like mercury, brominated flame retardants, PVC, phthalates and beryllium from products” and thirdly it pushes the re-use and recycling of products as much as possible.

Apple says that around two-thirds of devices are passed onto new owners, while the remainder are recycled.

Apple itself has recycling robots that disassemble iPhones into component parts. New products are also increasingly made from recycled materials; the aluminium enclosures on the MacBook Air and Mac mini are completely made from recycled aluminium (further reducing carbon consumption footprint for those new products).

It has also committed to moving suppliers to renewable energy as well, saying that around a third of the electricity used to make 2020 products was renewable. The products themselves are around 70 percent more efficient than they were in 2008 – not hugely surprising when you consider the move to more efficient computing devices.

Google is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy and matches 100 percent of its electricity consumption with the purchase of renewable energy (and has done since 2017).

It says it’s working to make its data centres more efficient and this is a primary focus of the company’s sustainability projects. The SVP of technical infrastructure at Google has said: “While the amount of computing done in data centers increased by about 550 percent between 2010 and 2018, the amount of energy consumed by data centres only grew by six percent during the same time period.

While data centres now power more applications for more people than ever before, they still account for about one percent of global electricity consumption—the same proportion as in 2010.

Like Amazon, Google is also focusing on generating its own energy rather than having to buy it all in future – in 2018 it opened its first data centre site also featuring a solar farm. The Belgian site has nearly 10,700 panels generating 2.9 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy each year.

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