Apr 19, 2021

Facebook hit 100% renewable energy. So what?

hyperscale
Sustainability
datacentres
carboncredits
Harry Menear
4 min
A rendering of Facbook's 5.5mn square foot data centre campus in Prineville, Orgeon - Courtesy of Prinveville Data Center, Facebook
Social media giant, Facebook, has achieved a key sustainability goal by securing renewable energy to power 100% of its global operations...

Kicking off the week with some good news(?), Facebook has hit an ambitious sustainability milestone ahead of schedule. The social media giant revealed late last week that its global operations are now 100% powered by renewable energy. 

In the run up to this year’s Earth Day (April 22), Facebook announced that “as of 2020, Facebook’s operations are supported by 100% renewable energy and have reached net zero emissions.”  

Facebook’s journey to net-zero has been a quick one, as the company cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 94% in just the past three years, exceeding the 75% reduction goal it set for itself back in 2018. 

Given Facebook’s sizable data centre portfolio - which includes some of the world’s largest and most innovative hyperscale data centres - the achievement is an impressive one. The company added in its announcement that, “We have contracts in place for more than six gigawatts of wind and solar energy across 18 states and five countries. All 63 projects are new and located on the same electrical grids as the data centres they support.” 

This isn’t to say Facebook isn’t putting significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The company’s director of renewable energy, Urvi Parekh, admitted in an interview with CBS News that, in 2020, activities like construction and natural gas usage put approximately 38,000 metric tonnes of carbon (equivalent to the annual emissions of around 8,900 cars) into the air. 

The main issue with sweeping “carbon neutral” or “net zero” statements from large corporations like Facebook is that, more often than not, achieving milestones like these are more of a demonstration of creative carbon accounting than actual reductions in emissions. 

Take carbon credits for example. Those 38,000 metric tonnes of carbon that Facebook’s construction activities and natural gas usage put into the atmosphere seem at odds with the company’s claim that they are “carbon neutral” or “100% powered by renewable energy”. The way these two facts are reconciled is through the purchase of carbon credits, whereupon Facebook (and hundreds of companies like it) pay an amount of money per metric tonne of carbon pumped into the atmosphere to a carbon credit authority (which can be privately or governmentally owned, depending where you’re based) which - like the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages selling indulgences to the rich as a way to support the church in exchange for salvation - allow Facebook to remove carbon emissions from their annual balance sheet. 

Now, the issue here is much the same as it was around 700 years ago when wealthy nobles and merchants would “sin” and then pay for absolution: the sin still happened. Committing murder and then paying to have it excused in the eyes of the lord doesn’t bring back the murdered person. In much the same way, the carbon that Facebook paid to have scrubbed from its hands is still out there, slowly killing our planet. 

In 2019, Facebook paid to remove more than 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon (or, 41.2mn gallons of gasoline; 2023 railcars worth of coal burned; the annual energy usage of more than 44,000 homes) from its balance sheet. All that carbon? The result of offsetting one year of business travel for Facebook staff. 

The money was spent mostly on forest conservation projects, and that’s great, but it sheds a weird and distasteful light on Facebook’s announcement - an announcement which, not two paragraphs earlier, encourages people to “Raise funds for a cause you care about”, “sign up to volunteer” on Facebook to plant trees in local neighbourhoods, and “shop eco-friendly”. Shaming the consumer for contributing individual drops to an ocean that Facebook and other large-scale corporations have been cheerfully adding to by the tanker-load for decades just doesn’t sit right. 

I’m not suggesting that Facebook shut down its data centres (where would I post this story when I finish uploading it?), or that Facebook is a necessarily bad example of a sustainable company. It’s not. It’s actually quite a good one, and that in of itself is troubling. 

I am suggesting that the sale of carbon credits is an unethical solution to an issue to which the answer is vigorous and persistent taxation. The argument that private companies can buy carbon indulgences from other private organisations in exchange for a clean bill of environmental health is very comparable to the way that corporations approach charitable donations in order to funnel money away from their tax returns and into private hands where there is little to no government oversight of how the money is spent and, therefore, no power in the hands of the people who that government represents. 

If aggressive carbon taxation (as well as taxes on other forms of emissions), and revenue-percentage-based fines for unsustainable design principles and operating practices could be put in place, while at the same time carbon offsetting could be diminished (or at least more strictly regulated) then large corporations would probably make less money, look less sustainable on paper and, just maybe, win back a little more public trust that they’re working to build a better world. Also, our planet might actually survive into the next century. 

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