Reducing carbon emissions and compensating for them is going to be something we hear a lot more about over the next few years. With carbon targets now in place for many countries – such as the UK’s 2050 target – we’re mere years away from a seismic shift in how companies deal with carbon emissions.
Humans have released more than two trillion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, over three-quarters of which is carbon dioxide emitted since the mid-1950s. That’s more than 50 billion metric tons of extra greenhouse gases each year. The problem has to be dealt with.
The key tech firms are some of the highest-profile businesses on the planet and dealing with carbon output is not just an aspiration, but a competitive necessity. Why? Because other companies that use services like Office 365, Google Apps (G Suite) or Amazon AWS also need to lower their carbon footprint and want their suppliers to be greener than green as a result.
Who's going net zero?
Microsoft has led the way here. While the ambition of many is to reach “net zero” – essentially removing as much carbon each year as they emit – the Windows and Office behemoth said in January 2020 that it –and its supply chain - will be Carbon negative by 2030.
That not only means cancelling out emissions on a rolling basis, but it means removing cancelling out more carbon than it’s producing. By 2050, Microsoft says it will go a step further and "remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975."
That’s some goal.
Here’s an explainer on how Microsoft is working out its emissions:
As part of this effort, Microsoft has established a climate innovation fund to companies "developing carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies".
Amazon has an ambition of net zero carbon by 2040 which is 10 years later than Microsoft. To be fair, it is more difficult for Amazon to achieve that because of its reliance on power inefficient delivery vehicles which, of course, are currently mostly propelled using fossil fuels - though it's obviously developing alternatives as you can see here:
Amazon says its shipments will be net zero and is targeting that for 50 percent of all shipments by 2030.
Amazon says it is committed to using 100 percent renewable energy though isn’t there yet. The cloud arm of Amazon, known as AWS or Amazon Web Services, exceeded 50 percent renewable energy usage by 2018.
Amazon is mostly aiming to generate its renewable energy needs itself. The company has been ranked first in the U.S. by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) for corporate on-site solar panels. Amazon says that these offset 200 million miles of truck deliveries and is introducing more - there are now 50 systems on top of fulfilment centre roofs globally, powering around 80 percent of the needs for each centre.
It’s also investing in wind farms – the company has over 70 current products generating more than 5.3 million MWh of energy annually. The largest wind farm is in Texas with other 100 turbines.
Amazon also says its AWS data centres are also increasingly becoming more energy efficient themselves and are also using less drinking water for cooling, instead moving to recycled water using direct evaporative technology.
Apple says it has reduced its carbon emissions from operations by 64 percent since 2011 even though the company has quadrupled in size. However, it doesn’t yet have a long term target to be net zero or similar.
Reuse and recyle
Apple primarily pushes three green goals – 100 percent of its retail locations, offices and data centres use renewable energy. It’s "eliminated harmful chemicals like mercury, brominated flame retardants, PVC, phthalates and beryllium from…products" and thirdly it pushes the re-use and recycling of products as much as possible.
Apple says that around two-thirds of devices are passed onto new owners, while the remainder are recycled.
Apple itself has recycling robots that disassemble iPhones into component parts. New products are also increasingly made from recycled materials; the aluminium enclosures on the MacBook Air and Mac mini are completely made from recycled aluminium (further reducing carbon consumption footprint for those new products).
It has also committed to moving suppliers to renewable energy as well, saying that around a third of the electricity used to make 2020 products will be renewable (based on 2018 figures). The products themselves are around 70 percent more efficient than they were in 2008 – not hugely surprising when you consider the move to more efficient computing devices.
Google is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy and matches 100 percent of its electricity consumption with the purchase of renewable energy (it has done since 2017).
It says it’s working to make its data centres more efficient and this is a primary focus of the company’s sustainability projects. Urs Hölzle, senior vice president of technical infrastructure at Google says: "While the amount of computing done in data centers increased by about 550 percent between 2010 and 2018, the amount of energy consumed by data centers only grew by six percent during the same time period.
"While data centers now power more applications for more people than ever before, they still account for about one percent of global electricity consumption—the same proportion as in 2010."
Like Amazon, Google is also focusing on generating its own energy rather than having to buy it all in future – in 2018 it opened its first data centre site also featuring a solar farm. The Belgian site has nearly 10,700 panels generating 2.9 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy each year.