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Data storage and dirty energy: What Big Tech’s carbon neutral pledges leave out

How green is Silicon Valley? Big Tech companies, from Apple to Amazon to Alphabet, are pledging to go carbon neutral in the next few decades. While these promises incorporate building solar farms and eliminating single-use plastic, they also require ways of compensating for corporate travel, mounds of e-waste, and contracts with oil and gas companies that don’t figure into the minus column when it comes time to tally a company’s environmental impact.

Many aspects of these pledges are voluntary, and how companies are going from Point A to carbon free in the next 10 to 20 years isn’t always mapped out with easy-to-follow steps. To get a clearer look at their plans and exactly what they entail, we spoke with representatives from Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google parent Alphabet about their environmental initiatives, and then had environmental experts weigh in.

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RECs and PPAs: The acronyms of environmentalism

To understand what carbon neutral and net zero really mean requires some acronyms. In the U.S., there aren’t solar grids or coal grids. Electricity generated by a wind farm and nuclear power plant, for example, gets fed into the same system, and 80 percent of U.S. energy use comes from fossil fuels. When a company says it’s powered by 100 percent renewable energy, it’s likely still getting some energy from these environmentally unfriendly sources.

To offset this use of dirty energy, companies typically buy Renewable Energy Certificates (REC) from power plants that generate clean power. If a company buys an REC for every megawatt hour of energy it uses, then it can say it runs on 100% renewable energy. However, it’s fairly cheap to do so and hasn’t historically resulted in much innovation. Companies are now signing long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs). These are more costly but help fund new clean power projects, instead of just claiming the benefits of existing ones.

Apple says its facilities are powered by 100 percent renewable energy, with RECs. It also supplies energy to grids its facilities use with its own solar and wind projects. For several years, Google has been purchasing enough credits to offset energy used by its data centers. Facebook says it will compensate for its own energy use with a mix of RECs and renewable energy projects by 2020.

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Recurrent Energy

“We don’t want to have to go and buy renewable energy. We just want to buy energy and we want it all to be renewable, right,” Dr. Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, told Digital Trends. “We just want to plug it into grids that ensure that 100 percent of the electrons reaching our facility are from zero-carbon sources 100% of the time.” That’s a longer-term goal that he said will take more than just Microsoft to accomplish.

Amazon has promised to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. With RECs, the company was at 50 percent in 2018. “I think a 2040 deadline is far too late for a company as large and successful as Amazon,” said Elizabeth Jardim, who works on tech sector issues at Greenpeace USA.

“If anybody can go carbon neutral tomorrow, today, next minute, it’s these guys,” said Deepak Rajagopal, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

When you have the amount of money that these big tech companies do, buying enough renewable energy credits and funding power purchase agreements is easy, he added. “If they’re not talking anything outside their own buildings, outside their own data servers, I think it’s a waste of time,” said Rajagopal.

Fuel cellphones 

If you Google “How much does a dog cost?” you’re probably not looking for a shelter’s adoption fee. You probably want to know how much, monthly, you’ll spend on the pup. Something similar is true in determining the actual energy use of a smartphone. It may only cost pennies for you to charge it, but what about the energy that goes into running the network and storing and sending data?

To get the full picture on greenhouse gas emissions, entities track several tiers of emissions, from direct emissions (scope one) to those produced by electricity use (scope two) to indirect emissions (scope three) — those produced by manufacturers making parts for the company, for example. When companies talk about their carbon neutral goals, it’s not always clear if they include any or all tiers of emissions, and if they’re taking into consideration what happens to a product after they sell it.

There are also less visible aspects to many tech companies’ businesses that some critics say undermine any climate pledges they make. For example, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have provided their artificial intelligence and cloud computing services to oil and gas companies, which Greenpeace has criticized. Google issued a statement saying it wouldn’t build new custom artificial intelligence or machine learning tools for extracting more fossil fuels. “It certainly remains a huge hole in Microsoft and Amazon’s commitment,” said Jardim.

A man standing in e-waste
Zoran Milich/Getty

Recently, Apple stated that by 2030, every device it sells “will have net-zero climate impact.” To achieve the goal, Apple said it would reduce its manufacturing chain’s emissions by 75%, recycle more components, and push suppliers to use renewable energy. Microsoft will also require suppliers to report emissions, a first step toward reducing them.

Right now, 78% of an iPhone 11 Pro Max’s emissions come from production, according to the company. Using the device contributes just 18% of the phone’s total emissions. It’s not clear if Apple is only including the energy used to charge the phone in that figure.

If you connect your phone to a network and the internet, its environmental impact starts to creep up. Some estimates put the information and communications technology sector’s CO2 emissions at 2% of the world’s total, equal to the airline industry’s fuel emissions. For comparison, fossil fuels used to heat homes and businesses make up about 12% of the U.S.’s emissions. Still, newer technologies like 5G and cryptocurrency are energy-intensive, and anything that increases carbon emissions is contrary to climate pledges.

Built to last … until next year?

When companies simply can’t lower emissions — like those that come from corporate air travel — they’ll often utilize “offsets.” This might mean planting trees, for example. “Offsets is probably the least preferred way of getting to carbon neutral,” said Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware. That’s because it doesn’t reduce the amount of carbon released into the air.

Apple has promised to use reforestation projects to compensate for the 25 percent of its manufacturing that will still produce emissions. That likely includes mining for metals and minerals used in its products. “There’s no doubt that some level of metal mining is going to be needed for the foreseeable future, because we do not have recycling stocks for a lot of these metals, considering the growth in demand,” said Ali.

Mineral and metal sourcing from the Democratic Republic of Congo is extremely difficult. Apple often ranks as one of the more diligent companies in sourcing such materials, but it’s still unable to state they’re all conflict-free. It’s also a labor-intensive, environmentally detrimental process.

Both Apple and Google offer device-recycling programs. Apple points to its disassembly robots that help it recover tungsten and steel from returned devices. The company refurbished 7.8 million devices in 2018. It sold 77.3 million iPhones in a single quarter of the same year. Google has also said it will use recycled materials in all of its Made by Google products by 2022, but the devices will not be made entirely of recycled components.

Microsoft just announced its data centers will have “circulation centers,” which reuse and upcycle server components, as part of its efforts to be zero waste by 2030. It’s also eliminating single-use plastic from its packaging by 2025.

“From an environmental point of view, the best way to save on resources is to make something durable,” said Ali. Apple is currently under investigation for deliberately slowing down old iPhones. The company said it was ensuring the phones could handle power spikes.

But Apple also doesn’t want just anyone to replace your phone’s battery, and that has some pushing for right-to-repair laws. Requiring manufacturers to share their manuals and diagnostic tools with independent parties would make it easier and cheaper to get devices fixed, advocates say. “I think Apple still has a long way to go in terms of designing products that can be repaired and refurbished for much more than like two or three years,” said Greenpeace’s Jardim.

Green new dealings

Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet are some of the biggest companies in the world. When these companies put their money behind new, greener technology, they can have a real impact. “If the biggest tech companies were advocating for things like grids all over the United States to shift to 100% renewable energy in the next decade, I think that would really push that along,” said Jardim.

Joe Mabel

One reason companies need backup sources of power is that wind doesn’t always blow and the sun isn’t always shining. Google is looking into 24/7 renewable energy, including ways of storing energy for future use. Those are the kind of technologies that could help smaller businesses and residences benefit from clean energy.

Amazon has its own plans for jump-starting a nascent technology: Electric trucks. It’s ordered 100,000 of them from startup Rivian. “That’s a big shot in the arm for electric vehicles,” said UCLA’s Rajagopal. Amazon said the first 10,000 vehicles will be on the road by 2022, with the rest deployed by 2030. That’s a tall order for a startup, especially considering other manufacturers have been slow to roll out their own models.

Even with all those electric trucks, Amazon would still only reach net-zero emissions for 50 percent of its shipments by 2030. The pandemic has only made people buy more from the retailer. Jardim said the company’s on-demand delivery for Prime customers obscures not only the monetary cost of such operations, but the environmental cost as well. “It really begs the question around the need for a mindset shift around the really rapid consumerism,” she said.

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