For almost a year, the U.S. In the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Department of Energy experts has been collaborating with Google on a method to allow drivers to readily pick routes that emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Following the introduction of the service in the United States in October, as well as Canada and Germany this year, the internet behemoth is now spreading the initiative to additional European countries.
Eco-routing, which shows a little leaf next to Google Maps instructions with the lowest carbon impact, is just one of several projects Google has introduced to assist others in achieving “deep decarbonization” as it works toward its own net-zero emissions objective of 2030. The activities also help the company’s position with investors who value environmental, social, and economic factors.
According to the corporation, the app function has decreased greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500,000 metric tonnes. That’s the same as taking 100,000 gas-guzzling automobiles off the road. While not as significant as electrifying transportation, the initiative exemplifies Google’s three-pronged approach to climate change: decarbonizing its operations and supply chain, using technology and data to enable cities and businesses to calculate their carbon footprints, and assisting consumers in making sustainable choices.
Google’s sustainability initiatives extend throughout its businesses, from machine intelligence to assist cool its data centres to smart thermostats that save energy at home. Kate Brandt, who led the Obama administration’s sustainability initiatives in 2014 and 2015 before joining Google as a sustainability leader, is in charge of these activities. She is in charge of sustainability throughout the company’s worldwide operations, products, and supply chain, liaising with the data centre, real estate, and product teams.
Google has one of the most ambitious sustainability goals among Big Tech corporations, with its 2030 net-zero objective. Microsoft is also a pioneer, aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2020. Amazon, a major participant in the energy-intensive world of data centres, wants to be net zero by 2040. Apple’s objective is to achieve carbon neutrality in its supply chain and products by 2030, in addition to the carbon neutrality, it now claims for its worldwide operations.
These firms’ products and services are already widely available in developed countries, but Google stands out in the sustainability movement due to its engagement in people’s daily transportation decisions using Google Maps and Google Flights. And its Nest smart thermostats can influence everyday energy-use decisions in the home.
“As Google, we have this wonderful luxury of having things that a billion people use every day,” Brandt told Fortune in an interview. The firm has focused on incorporating features into key products that assist everyday people in making sustainable decisions, such as picking a driving route that consumes less gasoline with Google Maps’ eco-routing tool.
“We regard individuals as jigsaw pieces,” Brandt explained. “It’s extremely advantageous if we can show people what the most significant activities are and make that an easier option, a better choice, a cheaper choice.”
Greater impact through collaboration
Since committing in 2012 to purchase enough renewable energy to power all of its activities, the company’s knowledge of how to achieve sustainability has developed.
“At the stage, we didn’t even know how we were going to get there, and what we really realised along the road was that it needed ecosystem change and that these changes can only happen in collaboration,” Brandt stated.
In 2018, Google collaborated with the California Academy of Sciences and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to develop Your Plan, Your Planet, an interactive online tool. The site has grown to its current form, which offers advice to anyone interested in minimising food, water, and energy waste, as well as extending the life of consumer items.
“I think this was our first apparent step in thinking about how we might utilise technology to make the sustainable option the easy choice,” she explained.
In addition to the multiplatform online application, the same energy-saving concepts are now integrated into the company’s consumer-facing activities, such as its shopping, flights, and hotel search services, as well as its Nest smart thermostats. For instance, when someone searches for airline travel alternatives on Google Flights, the search feature displays the amount of CO2 emissions as well as the flight’s price and the travel duration.
“When you search for a hot water heater on Google Shopping, it will now urge you to consider a heat-pump water heater,” Brandt explained. The Nest thermostat also encourages users to contemplate spurning their thermostats at the most opportune moments.
Google’s environmental engagement has included its own employees, some of whom signed a petition in 2019 requesting that the corporation set specific sustainability targets. They included reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030, prohibiting contracts that allow for fossil-fuel extraction, and no longer paying think tanks, lobbyists, and politicians that attempt to hinder climate-change action. Following a Guardian investigation that the corporation had given “significant” payments to more than a dozen organisations “that have campaigned against climate legislation, questioned the need for action, or actively worked to roll down Obama-era environmental regulations,” the company sent the letter.
The letter also followed a pledge signed by over 2,000 Google employees who organised with employees from Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies to strike and demand a “livable future for all of us.” That pledge letter stated that Google’s cloud business brings in “significant revenue licencing infrastructure, machine learning, and engineering talent to fossil-fuel companies.” It also stated that in 2018, the company funded 111 members of Congress who voted for climate change legislation. Furthermore, the letter chastised the corporation for failing to specify a target date for attaining carbon-free energy use.
“We perceive individuals as jigsaw pieces. If we can offer them the most meaningful activities and make them an easier option, a better choice, or a cheaper choice, that will be very valuable.” —KATE BRANDT, CHIEF SUSTAINABILITY OFFICER, GOOGLE
While Google has established a net-zero objective for 2030, the company’s progress on the other demands is less obvious. Google said in 2020 that it will cease producing customised A.I. or oil and gas sector machine learning tools However, the following year, the business announced a partnership with Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil corporation, to grow cloud services in the country. According to Google, the agreement does not include any oil production.
According to Daniel Stewart, energy and climate programme manager at shareholder movement As You Sow, Google has to explain more clearly that its lobbying dollars aren’t going to lawmakers who oppose climate-change measures.
In June, Alphabet equity holders regarded a proposal requiring the company to principally evaluate whether its lobbying activities, whether direct or indirect through trade associations and other organisations funded by the company, align with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Because of current lobbying reports, the business stated the climate lobbying plan was “unnecessary and duplicative,” and shareholders eventually voted down the idea.
When asked if the 2019 staff letter influenced Google’s climate change trajectory, Brandt noted the firm has been focused on sustainability since its inception.
“Part of it is because we are a bunch of individuals who care profoundly about this, and I’ve always considered our staff as extremely important to this endeavour,” she added, referring to the company’s policy that allows employees to devote 20% of their time to side projects. One such project was Project Sunroof, a tool that helps map rooftop solar potential. Another effort used the use of machine learning to develop an artificial intelligence system for cooling data centres.
Externally, the firm is concentrating on assisting cities in becoming more sustainable. One of its tools, Environmental Insights Explorer, is intended to help local governments better evaluate building and transportation emissions, as well as rooftop solar possibilities.
“We’re bringing in more and more data sets,” Brandt explains. “And this is now available in approximately 42,000 cities around the world.”
One aspect of the Environmental Insights Explorer is the use of mobile air sensors to collect data on street-level air pollution in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and London. It also has a tree canopy mapping function for 14 cities in the United States, including Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Austin, and Denver. Cities can utilise the data to develop tree-planting strategies in order to lessen the hazards of heat islands, which can result in heat-related fatalities.
Not enough regional renewable resources
When inquired about how much greenhouse gas emissions Google’s overall three-pronged approach has helped the world avoid, Brandt, stated that the company has set a goal of “enabling a billion new sustainable actions” this year and added, “We are very interested in exactly what you’re asking about, of how do we also really quantify that impact.”
Since 2011, Google’s Nest thermostats have helped save more than 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. According to Brandt, the eco-friendly driving option included in Google Maps last year will allow drivers to save almost a million metric tonnes of carbon every year.
This adds to the environmental credentials of a corporation that claims to have been carbon-neutral since 2007 due to offsets. In 2017, Google became the first big corporation to meet its entire annual power use with renewable energy.
Nonetheless, Google’s activities created more than 6.7 million tonnes of CO2 last year, which it had to offset through alternative energy procurements and carbon credits, and that doesn’t include the majority of its scope-three emissions.
It exemplifies the difficulty faced even by firms with vast budgets and ambitious environmental aims, such as Google: There aren’t enough regional renewable energy sources to power all of its activities, let alone those of all of its suppliers.
Investor influence and scrutiny
When it comes to environmental sustainability, the investing community considers Google to be a leader among technology businesses. However, Google and other Big Tech corporations have ESG problems that extend beyond their involvement in climate change.
Earth Equity Advisors used to incorporate Google in its Green Sage Sustainability Portfolio due to its carbon-neutral operations and leadership in renewable energy consumption. However, it sold the company’s stock owing to privacy worries about how Google collects and monetizes user data, according to CEO Peter Krull. According to him, privacy is a component in the firm’s sustainability assessments since how corporations treat individuals helps to a healthy population.
Nonetheless, Earth Equity evaluates Alphabet twice a year while rebalancing the portfolio.
“I really admire what Google is doing generally in terms of sustainability,” Krull added. “Their goal of being carbon-free by 2030 is commendable.” So it’s absolutely feasible that we’ll reintroduce them into the portfolio.”
According to As You Sow’s Stewart, Google has contributed fuel to the burgeoning ESG movement. The corporation serves as a high-profile example for investors looking for additional renewable-energy procurements and net-zero ambitions from public companies.
Brandt called Google’s entire multi-pronged sustainable development strategy a “long-term gamble.”
Part of that goal entails moving beyond the carbon credits that have allowed the company to proclaim carbon neutrality for its own activities. In addition to attaining net-zero emissions across its operations and value chain, including its consumer hardware products, Google aspires to be the first big corporation to function entirely on carbon-free energy.
This would include matching the power used by its data centres with regionally provided renewable energy, something it cannot now accomplish since not all of the geographies in which it operates have ample renewable energy accessible to electrical grids. Google matches its total power use with renewable energy, however, this includes purchasing wind energy in Europe to offset a shortage of renewable energy purchases in Asia. Last year, Google matched 66% of its data centre power demand with area carbon-free sources on an hourly basis.
The 24/7/365 carbon-free goal is pragmatic, with Brandt referring to it as “one of our Google moonshots.” That lofty goal will be fueled by the company’s deep pockets and updated by years of an advancing sustainability strategy that has come to involve a global network of divergent players, including local governments.
“We’ve written extensively on the progress we’ve made around renewable power, how we’ve thought about power-purchase agreements, how we’ve thought about this change to 24/7, how we think about clean energy policy, and what it takes to attain a 24/7 carbon-free future,” said Brandt.
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