Facebook hit 100% renewable energy. So what?
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 are now 100% powered by renewable energy.
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 - 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 (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.
DEWA, Huawei to build Dubai’s largest green data centre
Moro Hub, a subsidiary of the digital arm of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), signed an agreement with Chinese tech giant Huawei over the weekend to build a new hyperscale data centre in the city. Taking advantage of an abundance of solar power available in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the new facility will be 100% powered by renewable electricity generated by photovoltaic infrastructure located within the Emirates.
With the potential to reach a capacity of 100 MW upon full buildout, the facility is set to become the largest solar-powered, Uptime Institute Tier III-certified green data centre in the Middle East and Africa.
The project is part of the Dubai 10x initiative launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and will support the Emirate’s goal of developing into “a city of the future, putting it 10 years ahead of other global cities,” according to Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, MD & CEO of the DEWA.
The signing event, attended by HE Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, MD & CEO of DEWA, and Mr Charles Yang, President of Huawei Middle East, and signed by Marwan Bin Haidar, Vice Chairman and Group CEO Digital DEWA and Mr Jerry Liu, CEO of Huawei UAE - Courtesy of DEWA
Al Tayer added that the project, “meets our ambition to deliver sustainable digital transformation and anticipate and shape the future,” and “supports the UAE Centennial 2071 to make the UAE the world's leading nation and the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030.”
The facility will, according to Al Tayer, also support Dubai’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions by 16% before the end of the year, as well as its goal of meeting 75% of the city’s power demands with clean energy by 2050, and “significantly aids DEWA’s progress towards sustainable development.”
Moro Hub already operates one green data centre in the Emirate, which came online in October of 2020. The facility was the first Tier-III green data centre to come online in the Middle East.
Charles Yang, President of Huawei Middle East, was also present at the signing ceremony held on Saturday. He commented that the new association between Huawei and the DEWA, “allows us to strengthen our partnership with Moro Hub and take part in fortifying the UAE's sustainable development goals.”