Big Tech and sustainability: the current state of play

This is such a helpful overview from the consistently excellent Protocol newsletter:

As Facebook has gone from “social network for chatty college kids” to effectively powering a version of the internet with data centers and offices all over the world, the company’s begun to think a lot more about sustainability. Good for the world, good for the bottom line, everybody wins!

This year should be a big milestone in its sustainability efforts. Facebook has said its goal is to have its own operations be 100% sustainable by 2020, and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% compared to 2017 levels. On Tuesday, Facebook put out its most substantive sustainability report yet, with a look into how all that was going as of the end of 2019. (Luckily not much has changed since then, eh?)

First, the numbers. Facebook’s reduced its GHG emissions by 59% since 2017, up from the 44% reduction it had achieved by the end of 2018. It’s still short of the 75% goal, but getting closer. It’s also up to having 86% of operations powered by renewable energy, compared to 75% in 2018.

To that second number: Facebook’s now one of the world’s largest buyers of renewable energy, but its overall electricity use spiked almost 50% in 2019 alone, its biggest jump in years. It spent 2017 and 2018 massively ramping up its data center footprint, and it looks like that’s showing up in the electric bill.

But are those numbers good or not? I looked at other sustainability reports, and it turns out Facebook’s doing pretty well! Amazon, for instance, runs 42% of its (obviously much more complicated) operations on renewable energy. Though Apple says it’s already at 100% renewable energy, and has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 64%.

We’re going to have to wait another year to see what the pandemic, the recession and the general global upheaval do to these corporate efforts. I don’t think “Acting Greener” will be the most-talked about thing on Facebook in 2020 in the way it was last year, and big tech companies have a lot of other things on their plates at the moment. But climate change isn’t going away, and neither should these projects


In a later issue they provide an overview of the promises made:

Three of the four trillion-dollar tech companies have now promised serious climate action in sweeping corporate plans. (Where you at, Alphabet?) So let’s quickly recap the roadmap going forward:

Apple: Carbon neutral and 75% emissions reduction by 2030.

Amazon: Carbon neutral by 2040, 100% renewable operations by 2025.

Microsoft: Carbon-negative by 2030, removing all carbon since the company’s founding by 2050.