Google just made one of Big Tech’s most ambitious environmental commitments: it will work to run its operations purely on carbon-free energy by 2030. It also announced that as of today, it has purchased enough carbon offsets to essentially cancel out all the planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions the company has released since it was founded in 1998.
Google has been carbon neutral each year since 2007, which means that it offsets the emissions it generates from burning fossil fuels by investing in renewable energy projects or other initiatives that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into storage. But relying on offsets doesn’t actually wean the company off fossil fuels. Google released 4.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2018 alone, roughly the amount that more than 1 million passenger vehicles might put out in a year.
Google’s new pledge comes as California, home to Google’s headquarters, continues to burn and choke on the smoke from blazes made more devastating by climate change. “We have until 2030 to chart a sustainable cause for our planet or face the worst consequences of climate change,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a video released today. “We are already feeling those impacts today from historic wildfires in the US to devastating flooding in many parts of the world.”
Once Google’s data centers are powered completely by carbon-free energy, “this will mean every email you send through Gmail, every question you ask Google Search, every YouTube video you watch, and every route you take using Google Maps, is supplied by clean energy every hour of every day,” Pichai wrote in a blog post today. Google’s new commitment applies to the company’s electricity usage; the company will continue to offset emissions for things like employees’ travel, Reuters reports.
Last September, Google announced what it said was “the biggest corporate purchase of renewable energy in history,” which increased the company’s wind and solar agreements by 40 percent. The company said it became the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world in 2016.
Before Google can rely completely on carbon-free energy, it will need to overcome some technological hurdles. It will need more and better batteries to store and supply energy when the sun doesn’t shine and winds come to a halt. It also says it’s figuring out how to use AI to forecast the company’s electricity demand and become more energy efficient. In the US, the country’s aging energy grid needs to be updated to better accommodate renewable energy, too. Companies like Google are often limited to relying on the available power mix — which typically includes fossil fuels — wherever they’re operating. So Google may need to think about working in places with healthy renewable energy markets and favorable energy policies.
Because it’s figuring out how to meet those challenges, Google says its commitment to end its reliance on fossil fuels could pave the way for other companies to do the same. It believes its environmental efforts will create 12,000 jobs by 2025.
Google is also considering turning to nuclear energy, which isn’t considered renewable since it involves mining uranium and creates radioactive waste. But advanced nuclear energy is supported by some environmentalists because it doesn’t create carbon dioxide emissions. “We believe that all carbon-free technologies have a role to play in zero-carbon electricity systems and that, given the urgent challenge of decarbonizing electricity systems as quickly as possible, no such technology should be taken off the table,” a spokesperson for Google said in an email to The Verge.
Google’s new commitment meets one of the demands made by more than 2,000 of its workers last year, who called for zero carbon emissions by 2030 and joined a global climate strike with other tech workers in September. Workers at Amazon and Microsoft have made similar demands asking their employers to stop releasing greenhouse gases by 2030, but Google so far is the only tech giant to commit to do so. None of the companies have met employees’ additional demands to end contracts with fossil fuel companies and stop funding politicians and lobbyists that deny climate science.
Microsoft announced in January that it would work to remove all the carbon pollution it’s ever released from the atmosphere by 2050, which is a more difficult endeavor than the milestone Google reached today by offsetting all of its historic carbon emissions. But Google can now brag that its net carbon footprint for its lifetime is zero.
Correction Sep. 14th, 2:45pm: This story has been corrected to clarify that Google’s operations will run on carbon-free energy by 2030, which could include nuclear energy. A previous version of the story stated that the company’s operations would run on renewables, which does not include nuclear energy. The post has also been updated with a statement from Google.