Do Google's carbon offsets add up to much?

Google's decision to purchase controversial carbon offsets is flawed, but it doesn't obscure legitimate efforts to measure and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Google, a company that runs power-hungry data centers, employs thousands of people, and operates a corporate jet, said on Wednesday that it was carbon neutral for the past two years. How so? Offsets.

The idea of a carbon offset is to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions of a company or person by investing in a project that reduces emissions from the atmosphere.

Google sees offsets as an imperfect method for lowering their total carbon footprint, among other efforts. To detractors, offsets are essentially greenwashing when companies do little more than buy offsets to meet their environmental sustainability goals.

There are many routes an offset purchase can go: wind energy farms, siphoning off methane from landfills, or making buildings more energy efficient. There's an entire industry around offsets, which can be voluntary--as Google has purchased--or regulated in countries that have climate change regulations.

Without offsets, a company--no matter green--would have a hard time claiming to be carbon neutral simply because energy consumption means pollution. Achieving carbon neutrality is complicated by the fact that there isn't universal agreement on how to account for a company's carbon emissions: should it include just a company's operations or also its supply chain and end use of its products?

Even hard-core climate activists see offsets as problematic. Climate advocate Joseph Romm, who writes for the Climate Progress blog, calls them "rip-offsets."

The problem ultimately comes down to how effective offsets are in actually reducing emissions, he says. Offset claims are very difficult to verify, and doing a lifeycle analysis of an offset project--what is the exact net reduction of a landfill methane project?--are very easy to fudge, according to Romm.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office last August published a report saying it's particularly difficult to ensure "additionality." In other words: does a purchased offset truly represent an greenhouse gas reduction above and beyond business as usual. For example, some offsets were tied to a company that was already forced to capture methane to meet existing environmental rules.

Where's the beef?
So is Google being cavalier (or worse, disingenuous) by purchasing carbon offsets? It's impossible to say exactly what its motives are, but it's clear people there have thought this question through.

In a post on Wednesday, Google Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl said that the search giant's efforts to reduce data center energy consumption and to advocate for renewable energy were the meat of its climate mitigation activities. Offsets were done to reach neutrality, "not as a substitute for real action."

In addition, the company took the step to verify through a third party that the offsets were "additional," or projects that were done above business as usual.

Judged by non-governmental organizations such as ClimateCounts, Google is a leader in climate change in the Internet industry. It was outscored by companies in other industries, but Google gets points for actually measuring its carbon footprint and taking steps to reduce it.

Google.org has invested in a number of renewable energy companies in solar, wind, and enhanced geothermal. It has a plug-in electric initiative fueled by one of the largest corporate solar arrays at its headquarters. And it's nudging into home energy monitoring software while it lobbies for energy policies to support renewable energy and smart-grid technology.

In his post, Weihl summed up Google's view on offsets:

"The best way to reduce our corporate footprint is to not use electricity in the first place. Google will continue to reduce our emissions directly by building and designing some of the world's most efficient data centers as well as using on-site renewable energy to power our facilities. Over the last five years, we have eliminated over half the emissions we would have produced in the absence of these critical measures. Offsets serve to neutralize the rest. In the future, we will continue to drive for improvements in energy efficiency and to find affordable sources of renewable energy," he said.

Obviously, a large technology-intensive enterprise like Google will have a far heavier footprint than many other businesses. Even though it's not giving out a specific number on total emissions, Google appears to be doing a rigorous accounting, including everything from electricity to employee travel and server manufacturing in its total footprint.

And unlike most companies, it's done the math on offsets as well. Offsets will likely continue to be controversial, but at least Google isn't shying away from the debate and is confessing to the flaws of carbon offsets.