Grading Google's carbon neutral claims

How the search giant's carbon neutral achievements compare to other tech heavyweights.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
4 min read

Google reached its goal of becoming carbon neutral for 2007 and is almost entirely neutral for 2008, Google's Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl announced on the official Google blog Wednesday evening.

In June 2007, Google had announced it was going to try to become carbon neutral by the end of that year by working to maximize its efficiency, investing in renewable energy resources, and as a last resort and interim solution buying carbon offsets.

In Wednesday evening's post announcing the company had finally achieved that goal, Weihl reiterated the company's 2007 promise of using carbon offsets was only a temporary fix and announced more initiatives towards long-term sustainability goals.

"While offsets with strong additionality can achieve real emissions reductions in unregulated sectors at a relatively low cost, we view them as a short-term solution for Google, not as a substitute for other action," said Weihl.

"In addition, we've set ourselves the ambitious goal of creating 50 megawatts of new renewable generation capacity--enough to power 50,000 typical U.S. homes--by 2012," he said.

Earlier this month, the company shared one of its quirkier Green alternative solutions: using goats to cuts the Mountain View, Calif., campus lawn.

As there is yet no legal standard on how a company must calculate its carbon footprint or an official U.S. carbon certifying agency, Google said in its June announcement that it would be hiring the Environmental Resources Trust to verify its yearly assessment . Google also stated that its global carbon footprint includes employee commuting and business travel, as well as Google company construction, server manufacturing, and electricity use.

So, how does this compare to others? Matching how Google stacks up against other big names in tech is difficult since everyone calculates things uniquely, as they do with recycling. Here's the available info on the carbon neutrality status of several big names in tech.

This past March, Microsoft announced on its sustainability blog that the company plans to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 percent compared with its 2007 levels, by 2012.

In August 2008, Dell announced that it was carbon neutral in terms of its global electricity use and in April 2008 announced that its U.S. headquarters, consisting of 2.1 million square feet and 10,000 employees, was powered by 100 percent green energy. It's striving to achieve carbon neutrality through a combination of efficiency practices and buying carbon offsets.

Hewlett-Packard has announced a goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent from its 2005 levels before the end of 2010. About 99 percent of HP's greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity use, with only 1 percent coming from manufacturing and refrigeration equipment, according to HP. HP detailed that its official carbon footprint will include HP's owned and leased facilities' electricity use, natural gas use, manufacturing emissions, and refrigerant emissions. HP will not be including employee commuting, transport of its products, or the manufacturing of its suppliers in its carbon footprint, according to HP's "Global Citizenship Report 2008."

In May 2007, IBM held a press conference to announce that Big Blue would be launching "Project Big Green" to help other companies become carbon neutral. Part of its promise is that it can help the average 25,000-square-foot data center cut its energy bills by 42 percent. Between 1990 and 2007, IBM reduced about 45 percent of the company's 1990 global CO2 emissions. It plans to reduce its energy use by 12 percent from its 2005 levels by 2012 through conservation, increased use of renewable energy, and buying Renewable Energy Certificates, according to the company materials on its environmental stance. It plans to reduce its total global GHG emissions by 7 percent from 2005 to 2012, according to a listing with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Comparing footprint size
You could keep sifting through all the corporate sustainability reports and get varying systems of carbon footprint measurements and statistics like those above for almost every tech company. There are some organizations that have tried to come up with a way to make it easier to compare.

The EPA lists companies that have joined its Climate Leaders initiative and their stated goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, but many companies simply have "greenhouse gas reduction goal is under development" next to their listing. The list also fails to specify what each company includes in its carbon footprint.

But according to that EPA list, Intel will reduce its global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent per from 2004 to 2010; Cisco will reduce by 25 percent from 2007 to 2012; and Oracle plans to reduce "by 6 percent per square foot from 2003 to 2010 for all non-data center space and to purchase 5 percent green power for data centers." Sun Microsystems reduced U.S. GHG emissions by 23 percent from 2002 to 2007 and pledged to the EPA that it would reduced its global GHG emissions by 20 percent from 2007 to 2015.

In May 2008, Climate Counts, a nonprofit watch group funded by yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm that keeps scorecards on companies environmental records, released a list on tech and software companies' green achievements. Companies were rated by a points system and also placed into one of three (green, yellow or red) categories. IBM, Canon, Toshiba, Sony, HP, Motorola, Hitachi, Samsung, Siemens, and Google were put in the green category signaling companies with a good environmental record.

Microsoft, Yahoo, Dell, and Nokia were put in the yellow category signaling that they had made a start, but still had work to do in certain areas.

Amazon.com, Apple, and eBay were placed in the red category which, according to Climate Counts' chart, stands for "This company is not yet taking meaningful action on climate change."