Zero carbon our choice – the Internet and streaming

The BBC documentary “Dirty Streaming: The Internet’s big secret” covered how big tech generates 4% of the world’s emissions and in particular the hub of servers in Virginia, USA, powered by coal powered electricity. Those data centres are responsible for 2% of US emissions. Each time we send an email with a photo attachment that is 50 grams of CO2.

Amazon and Google have made promises to become emission free by 2040 and 2030 by buying renewable energy. Amazon measures its direct and indirect carbon footprint as 44 million metric tonnes.

Google states “We achieved our 100% renewable energy target much faster and at much greater scale than we thought possible when we set this goal seven years ago. We met it primarily by buying renewable electricity directly from new wind and solar farms via long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) on the grids where we have operations, as well as by buying renewable power through utilities via renewable energy purchasing models that we helped create. In addition, a portion of our utility energy purchases include renewable sources as part of the utility’s grid mix. With our PPAs, we’re purchasing physical renewable energy, which includes the electrons bundled with renewable energy certificates (RECs).”

Facebook states: “We’re working aggressively to support our facilities with 100% renewable energy in 2020. Facebook has contracted for over 4.0 gigawatts of renewable energy, making us the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world. In 2018, we achieved 75% renewable energy, and are on track to meet our goal in 2020.”

Apple: “In the past three years, Apple has reduced its carbon footprint by 35%.

Apple has transitioned to 100% renewable energy for the electricity used at its offices, retail stores and data centres in 43 countries across the world. Apple has decreased average product energy use by 70% across all of its major product lines. Apple has also partnered with Conservation International to protect and restore a 11,000 hectare mangrove forest in Colombia, which is expected to sequester 1 million tonnes of CO2 over the project’s lifetime.”

So how does one reconcile these figures? The four tech giants are all reducing emissions by buying renewable energy, yet the internet generates 4% of global emissions? And is this figure is  actually an underestimate.

If we look at the Google report the emissions section on Scope 3 is interesting. Scope 3 emissions are indirect emissions produced by the emitter activity but owned and controlled by a different emitter from the one who reports on the emissions.

“To align with industry best practices for Scope 3 reporting, in 2018, we extended our boundaries to include manufacturing emissions beyond Tier 1 suppliers (full upstream to the point of extraction), use of sold products, end-of-life treatment of sold products, and emissions associated with food from our corporate offices. We continue to improve the level of certainty we have in calculating our Scope 3 emissions and to work to reduce them. For example, our vision is for all our suppliers’ sites to source 100% renewable energy in every region where our products are made.”

If we contrast this with Anglo American (mining) “Cutting scope 3 emissions (which arise from the company’s value chain, both upstream and downstream) means working with customers and understanding where emissions arise along the value chain.”

So Anglo American counts the emissions of its customers in using its products (converting iron ore into steel) but Google doesn’t count the emissions of its customers, like you and me powering their computers or the batteries of phones and tablets. Without this electricity, they wouldn’t sell their products.

Facebook in its Sustainability report states “Facebook’s annual emissions for the average person on the platform are less than the carbon impact of making one cup of black coffee.” Its analysis of its emissions does not include scope 3 emissions.

Apple doesn’t quantify its scope 3 emissions. It states, a bit like Facebook, that its products on average used 7.2 Kwh in 2019 which doesn’t sound like a lot. But there are approximately 1 billion Apple products in use so that’s actually 7.2 Terawatt hours – which obviously sounds a lot bigger.

None of this reporting is inaccurate, it is just not complete. The services and products of big tech cause emissions as they are used, their business model doesn’t work without those emissions.

In my book, Zero Carbon Our Choice I discuss how the choices that we as individuals make determine a substantial amount of the world’s emissions. The tech giants focus on their scope 1 & 2 emissions, the ones they control directly. They try to reduce the energy usage of their products by design, but they don’t control the type of electricity used and thus the emissions resulting from their businesses.

It is we who control the emissions from using big tech products by the amount and type of electricity we use. So, does this get big Tech off the hook on these emissions? There is a good case to make that this should be a shared effort to reduce emissions by switching to non carbon electricity. We as consumers have a role, we could ask for big tech to invest in renewable contracts for their Scope 1 & 2 emissions and finance the construction of renewable infrastructure for all or half of their Scope 3 emissions.

The alternative is that it is our responsibility to invest in non carbon energy. Given the profits of big tech this might not seem equitable?

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