As one of the biggest cloud computing industry participants, Google comes under a huge amount of pressure to lead the way on sustainability. This year marks 14 years since the company believes it first achieved carbon neutrality, and four years since Google announced that it was now using 100% renewable energy for all its global operations. It seems like a good time to examine how Google is doing against its commitments on sustainability and carbon-free operations—and particularly its 2020 commitment to be operating on carbon-free energy everywhere and at all times by 2030. 

Google’s headline commitments look strong

It is worth pointing out that Google has delivered on its commitments on sustainability to date. It has been carbon neutral since 2007. Since 2017, it has been purchasing enough solar and wind energy to cover 100% of its global energy use, or ‘matching’. By September 2020, Google had purchased enough carbon offsets to match its full historical legacy of carbon emissions. This is not quite the same as operating on renewable energy, but it is a good start. Both of these achievements were global corporate ‘firsts’. It is, therefore, not an unreasonable ambition to say that it will be running on completely carbon-free energy by 2030—but there is no question that it will be challenging.  

Steps to decarbonise through transparency

Google has made clear that its next step is to ‘decarbonise’ the energy supply to its data centres. It therefore plans to move all Google Cloud regions towards a mix of energy that involves more and more renewables, and less carbon-based energy. In doing this, it plans to be transparent about what it calls the Carbon Free Energy Percentage in each region. It is currently sharing this figure on an hourly basis, to allow its customers to make informed decisions about where they locate—and the evidence suggests that its customers are already making use of this option. 

There is also a new tool, the Google Cloud Region Picker. This allows customers to pick their region, and therefore optimise workload using variables including price, performance (latency or speed), and carbon footprint. Businesses can weight factors from Not Important to Very Important within the tool, and also select the location of most of their traffic to make the best decision about the location of services. This is, of course, an important aspect enabling many of Google’s customers to reduce their carbon footprint, as well as supporting Google’s own targets. 

End-to-end sustainability

One huge issue for many companies is that their supply chain may be responsible for up to 80% of their carbon footprint—and emissions from supply chains can be around 10% higher than from direct operations. The past year has also highlighted broader concerns about supply chain sustainability, and made it a key focus for action in many businesses. Google has recognised this issue. It is partnering with customers to help to tackle the challenges of supply chain sustainability using analytics, and particularly machine learning models.

For example, logistics company UPS is using Google Cloud’s smart analytics platform to reduce fleet fuel consumption by 10 million gallons per year. This will make a major contribution to reducing its carbon emissions, but will also save up to $400 million per year. Google has also developed models to help address challenges such as reducing IT costs, and addressing IT infrastructure emissions. It is happy to work with customers to help them develop options to reduce pain points and tackle sustainability issues.

Beyond matching to reductions

Google’s commitment to reducing emissions started with matching energy consumption with purchases of renewable energy. Google’s purchasing power has delivered new wind turbines and solar panels around the world, helping to meet energy demand.

However, the company recognises that this option is not sustainable in the long term, not least as demand for cloud services continues to grow. Instead, it is essential to reduce demand for energy—but without suppressing computing. In the last decade, computing needs have grown by 550%. However, thanks to work by Google and other data centre providers, global data centre energy use has stayed very close to constant in the same period. Google estimates that it now delivers around seven times as much computing power using the same amount of electricity.

The move from ‘emit and compensate’ to ‘never emit’ will be challenging. However, Google’s progress to date, and its commitment to sustainability, are impressive. It is very much ‘watch this space’, but we think the news will be good.

The long view

Google is doing OK in its direct carbon emissions and work on the supply chain. The emphasis here is on ‘direct emissions’. This is as it should be as its data centres use as much electricity as a small country. However cloud computing providers collectively, and Google specifically, are at the heart of massive problems for the world through huge processing of spurious workloads. Bitcoin, gambling, the sale of user data to advertisers and spammers are just some of the examples of digital activities that are costing the planet more than users should be willing to accept.

Thanks to Martin Hingley for the additional analysis.

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