Sustainability Climate Change

What Big Tech is really doing to cut carbon

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Story at a glance

  • Cloud technology runs on data storage, which runs on electricity — making tech companies accountable for climate change prevention measures.
  • Many tech companies say they are carbon neutral, but rely on renewable energy credits.
  • See how tech companies like Google and Microsoft are trying to go net carbon neutral.

Although you can’t see it, cloud technology can produce a sizeable carbon footprint. When a user streams videos and sends messages back and forth, they access their data stored in the cloud via electricity. These data centers are still integral components of cloud computing and data storage, which emit 2 percent of all electricity usage in the United States. Estimates say that data centers contribute 0.3 percent of all global carbon emissions and are projected to increase. 

With almost daily reports issued about the severity of climate change and its effects, multiple companies have made big institutional changes and investments to reduce carbon emissions and go a bit greener. Between data center processing, mineral conflicts, colossal profits and widespread influence, the tech industry is by no means without impact. 

While most tech companies boast that they run on 100 percent renewable energy, a WIRED report shines a spotlight on big tech’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, including the trinity of cloud storage: Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. 

The report uses three metrics to evaluate each company’s data service: source of electricity, infrastructure efficiency and server efficiency. These seem like standard target areas, but WIRED points out one caveat that is usually overlooked in determining if a company is truly carbon-neutral is renewable energy credits (RECs).

RECs are intangible energy commodities that confirm one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity is generated and delivered to the grid from a renewable energy resource, according to the EPA. A kind of certificate, RECs essentially track renewable energy generation. 

To elaborate: Electricity enters power grids from both clean and “dirty” sources, a combination of renewable and fossil-fuel power. RECs were created to track and claim the renewable energy a customer generates. In a way, to buy a REC is to buy the environmental benefits of renewable energy and support green energy, but it does not necessarily mean a company is operating on that clean energy. 

By reporting RECs, companies such as Google and Microsoft have the best of both worlds by claiming they run on clean energy while still using grids powered by fossil fuels. Google, for example, still needs some energy from data centers running on fossil fuels, but it purchases RECs to offset it. 

When grading Google, Amazon and Microsoft, the report analyzes how each company is achieving zero net carbon emissions. Starting with Google, the report cites the company has the highest renewable energy investment portfolio and uses machine learning to keep its data centers cool and energy efficient by synchronizing with average weather patterns. 

Not to be outdone, Microsoft has been running carbon neutral for approximately seven years (when including RECs). Without RECs, that number falls to 60 percent, per the report. Microsoft motivates itself to go green through self-imposed carbon taxes and invests in sustainable energy projects, including hydropower purchases, wind farm partnerships and data centers on the seafloor.  

Lastly, the largest cloud computing provider, Amazon, ultimately grades the worst. Despite goals of net zero carbon emissions in 2040 and the construction of wind and solar farms, the statement that Amazon achieved 50 percent renewable energy — RECs included — was debunked in a Greenpeace report. Instead, the report states that Jeff Bezos’s company runs its data centers largely on fossil fuels headquartered in Northern Virginia. Amazon is pledging to reduce its fossil fuel consumption, mainly due to employee pressure. Moreover, the company’s reticence to reveal its energy data doesn’t inspire trust in its customers. 

The bottom line: Big tech companies are making progress on going green, though some effects remain.