(This article is an English version of Les « neutralités carbone » des entreprises du numérique)
« I do my computing on Google cloud because it doesn’t pollute », « ICT has no impact on climate because companies are becoming carbon neutral »
Are these sentences true? How to interpret the carbon neutrality claims of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) companies? In this article, we will try to give some food for thought on this subject.
In a nutshell
- ICT companies claim to be « carbon neutral », « net zero emissions » or others, but the term « carbon neutrality » is not appropriate for an organization and should not be used.
- The electricity consumption of these companies is increasing, and their carbon footprints are not decreasing or decreasing only slightly, or artificially. In particular, the reduction of the carbon footprint of ICT companies is largely based on the purchase (and not the consumption) of electricity from renewable sources, rather than on sufficiency approaches.
- The categories of emissions included in carbon footprints vary, making it difficult to assess companies’ environmental strategies.
- The environmental reportings lack transparency: for example, it is difficult to know what proportion of the renewable energy produced is used for self-consumption.
- Using the services of these companies does have a carbon footprint, as well as other environmental impacts.
Back to the notion of carbon neutrality
First of all, let’s have a quick look at the notion of carbon neutrality. We advise you to read the article on the notion of carbon neutrality of organizations by the consulting firm Carbone4.
Here is what we can learn from this study:
Carbon neutrality (or net zero emissions or climate neutrality, slightly different notions but we won’t go into detail here) only makes sense on a global scale: it is the balance between anthropogenic CO2 emissions and anthropogenic CO2 absorptions. For a company or another organization, on the other hand, this notion is vague and cannot be applied in a rigorous way:
- What perimeter is taken into account? Often only a part of the emissions for which the organization is responsible is taken into account (scopes 1 and 2 of the carbon reporting according to the GHG protocol for example, see details below), and this part may represent a very small percentage of the emissions.
- The notion of neutrality should be based on emission reduction trajectories that are compatible with the Paris Agreement. However, organizations are not obliged to follow such a trajectory in order to claim to be carbon neutral.
- Finally, the neutrality claimed by companies consists in financing offsetting projects (tree planting, replacement of carbon-based energy by renewable energy, etc.) up to the amount of their « incompressible » emissions. However, the offset mechanism is largely open to criticism: the physical reality of offsetting is questionable (this mechanism assumes a possible equivalence between an organization’s emissions and a supposed capture or reduction), it is difficult to show that an offset project would not have been carried out without this additional funding (principle of additionality in offsetting), the buyers of such projects may have the impression that they are clearing themselves of their emissions (psychological bias), and the temporal scales of offset projects differ from those of emissions…
Carbone4 therefore recommends talking about a contribution to global neutrality and for organizations to separate their carbon footprint from the offset projects financed in their balance sheets, so as not to give the impression that emissions and offsetting are equivalent.
Some examples of ICT companies
We now propose to analyze the environmental reports for 2020 of four major ICT companies: Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft (see references at the end of the article).
The graph below shows the evolution of electricity consumption (for operations, data centers, stores…) for each company over the last few years.
None of the companies have reduced their electricity consumption over the period, despite having worked to improve their energy efficiency.
Most of these companies are buying or producing the equivalent of their electricity consumption in renewable energy in 2020 (planned for 2025 for Microsoft). However, this does not mean that the electricity used actually comes from renewable sources, only that the equivalent of their consumption is purchased or produced from renewable energy.
The carbon footprints of organizations are the sum of emissions corresponding to various categories, which are grouped into 3 scopes, according to the GHG protocol standard:
- Scope 1: emissions resulting directly from the company’s activities, such as internal electricity generation, air conditioning refrigerant gas emissions, etc.
- Scope 2: emissions resulting from the company’s energy consumption, typically purchased electricity and heating.
- Scope 3: everything else! i.e. purchases, business travel of employees and commuting, waste management…
We will first study the emissions related to electricity consumption and heating.
« Green » energy
Before presenting emissions from electricity consumption, let’s clarify the ways in which companies report these emissions. Some companies report two figures for their electricity emissions:
- Calculation with a location-based method: average emission factor of the country.
- Calculation with a market-based method: average emission factor of the supplier from which the company buys electricity. With this method, when a company buys guarantees of origin, it can declare zero emissions for the part of the electricity covered by the guarantees (see Carbone4’s report on « green » electricity for more details). This second method therefore partially accounts for the company’s efforts to decarbonize its electricity, but not for its efforts (or lack thereof) to reduce its electricity consumption. The use of renewable energy by these companies does not necessarily come in addition to other renewable energy projects, but can compete with the consumption of other actors such as households.
The following graph shows the evolution of scopes 1 and 2 of the companies studied, i.e. mainly electricity and heating consumption. The curves corresponding to the location-based methods are indicated in dotted lines when available and correspond to the values on the right axis.
We can see that the carbon footprints of scopes 1 and 2, which includes the footprint due to electricity consumption, only decreases for Facebook and Apple, which nevertheless only report market-based values, and only thanks to the switch to renewable energy.
Total carbon footprint
The graph below shows the evolution of the total carbon footprint of each company.
We can see that the total carbon footprint is not decreasing except for Apple. However, this must be qualified by the fact that the reports may include new emission categories over the years in scope 3 (everything that is not direct energy consumption, i.e. purchases, business travel, waste, etc.). Remember that the footprint linked to manufacturing of the IT equipment used is part of this scope 3.
Commitments in terms of carbon footprint
The table below summarizes the achievements and commitments of the companies indicated in the 2021 reports.
|2007||« carbon neutral » for electricity and heat|
|2012||« carbon neutral » for operations|
|2020||« carbon neutral » since 2020 for electricity and heat (including Apple stores and data centers, and corporate facilities, as well as business travel and
|compensated legacy carbon footprint of operations||net zero emissions for operations|
|2025 (engagements)||reduce Scope 1 and 2
emissions to near zero
|2030 (engagements)||« carbon neutral » for full product life cycle
-75% of emissions compared to 2015
|net-zero emissions across all
operations and value chain
|net zero emissions for operations and value chain||carbon negative for all carbon footprint|
|2050 (engagements)||remove all historical emissions (since 1975)|
It can be noted that all these companies claim to be « carbon neutral » or « net zero emissions » for their electricity and heating consumption, as well as possibly commuting (these three categories being called « operations »), thus for their scopes 1 and 2 and part of scope 3. However, these emissions do not represent the majority of their footprints, and moreover this is not always achieved by reducing emissions, but can be achieved by increasing the financing of offset projects (as is the case with Google in particular).
The fact that these companies already claim to be « carbon neutral », even though the scope of this « neutrality » is limited, and that they themselves post commitments to other « carbon neutralities » in the future, does not make these reports very readable.
The achievements and commitments of these companies must therefore be considered carefully, and do not mean, far from it, that they have no impact in terms of climate change. Let’s also remember that carbon impacts are not the only environmental impacts of digital activities, and that it is important not to focus solely on the carbon footprint but also to take into account all the direct and indirect effects of digital use.
Thanks to Anne-Cécile Orgerie, Didier Mallarino, Laurent Lefèvre and Emmanuelle Frenoux for their careful review!
- Apple 2021 Environmental report
- Google 2021 Environmental report
- Facebook 2020 Environmental report
- Microsoft 2020 environmental report
For more information on Apple and Google, see also the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor 2022 report.
This text was first translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and then edited