Google’s activities that impact its climate revolve around its production and distribution of electronic devices, its use of data centres and the use of its AI technology to extract fossil fuels. It is clear that it has made significant efforts to improve its sustainability through innovation and circular economy practices, but it must be made clear that its priority is naturally still its profitability which limits its overall score.
Google’s electronic devices include Pixel phones, Pixelbooks and Google Home speakers among others. Google aims to create sustainable production for these devices through a circular economy by reusing materials in production. It had the aim of making all of its products include recycled materials by 2022 and has hit this goal ahead of schedule. But, this is still not a fully circular system. So as demand for Google products grows, emissions and mining of new materials will continue to rise as Google produces and sells more products. However, it is making active efforts to move towards using more recycled materials, as seen in its Pixel 5 model that uses 100% recycled aluminium.
It has also reduced the amount of energy required to run its servers making its data centres twice as efficient as the typical data centre and plans to partake in information sharing within the industry to spread sustainable practices. Given the extent of emissions generated as a result of internet usage from Google searches, watching YouTube, etc. (with the carbon footprint of gadgets, the internet and systems supporting them estimated to account for almost 4% of global emissions) this is significant and encouraging.
Google’s environment and diversity reports are easily accessible and clearly state its progress on its goals that they are on track to achieving. However, it has not published more granular information on where exactly it sources its materials from or its manufacturing processes which limits its score.
Google is currently carbon neutral and claims to use 100% renewable energy for all its cloud regions. This is slightly misleading as this is an average figure. It does not run with carbon-free energy at all times as renewable energy is not always available for example, at night or under some weather conditions. So, it still sometimes relies on carbon-based resources to fill in those gaps in power supply, and so it has the additional aim to run carbon-free energy 24/7 at all of its data centres by 2030.
Google is also establishing a system to recycle its old products and is putting in place feature updates to devices to help keep old models up to date without having to replace models. However, with the constant release of new phone models in its Pixel line, Google encourages a consumerist culture of replacing devices with the latest models negatively impacting the environment which lowers its overall score.
Google is co-funder of the Climate Savers Computing Initiative and member of The Green Grid - groups that are dedicated to the highest sustainability and efficiency standards. This along with its efforts to improve the sustainability of its operations and share information on good practices give it a high rating.
It has been criticised for being involved in unsustainable practices by partnering with several oil companies, including Total and Chevron, to develop artificial intelligence that allows for oil and gas to be extracted faster and more effectively. Its actions also spurred more than 1000 Google employees to write an open letter urging Google to move its goals to cut carbon emissions entirely by 2030 and drop activities that enable the acceleration of fossil fuel extraction. Google has since pledged to stop making these AI tools for the fossil fuel companies, being the first out of itself, Microsoft and Amazon to do so. Given the endeavour makes up a small proportion of its total revenues, this sacrifice perhaps should not be overstated; however, it is still encouraging that the company is taking such action resulting in its higher score.