An interesting article in Fortune magazine (23 July 2012) describes Google’s efforts to become carbon neutral. Their efforts have included getting into the clean energy business in 2007 only to get out in 2011 following shareholder pressure, buying carbon offsets, investing in energy efficiency in its server farms and buildings, and providing free transportation for employees. Do Google’s free buses and electric pool cars have any real environmental benefit, or is this just greenwash?
Some like to point out that electric vehicles get their electricity from dirty energy sources like coal. And Google admits that their carbon footprint has increased since 2007. But I think criticism of this nature misses the bigger picture. I’d prefer to highlight the following points.
Think dollars but consider the true cost
This article illustrates one of my hobby horses (see for example my review of ‘Zoom’.) I believe that the business of business is business, but making money is not incompatible with caring about the environment or society as long as the true cost of a good or service is considered. As an example, think how people’s drinking habits might change (and society might benefit) if the price of alcohol covered the cost of 40% of violent crime and 30% of traffic fatalities.
Back to Google. Their free bus service (and loan vehicles so employees can run errands during the day) saved them the $400m cost of providing parking. Did Google do this to be green, or just to save money. I don’t think it matters – if something benefits the environment, what does it matter if the motive is profit?
Get sustainability measures into the public domain
US companies are lagging in greenhouse gas emissions reporting, which will become mandatory in the UK for London Stock Exchange listed companies from April 2013. Google revealed the level of their carbon emissions for the first time in 2011. Even without legislation in the USA, as more companies report sustainability measures voluntarily public pressure will grow on others to follow suit.
There are two points here.
- Once something is made public, then it is easier for the public to have an influence, as Apple found out recently when they hastily backtracked on plans to withdraw from an environmental certification scheme following an outcry by their customers.
- Transparency of environmental data and comparison with competitors will provide an incentive for companies to improve their figures.
Google’s foray into clean energy technology failed. But I bet this isn’t the end of the story. The more people attempt something, the more likely it is that a solution will be found. Remember the story of Thomas Edison telling a reporter that he hadn’t failed – he’d just found two thousand ways that didn’t work.
The green tide may be ebbing and flowing but it seems to me that it continues to rise, in spite of the current economic challenges. Will there be a breakthrough in clean technology that will lead to a new wave of progress? I believe so. I’m convinced that one day we will have access to clean, free and unlimited energy.
What do you think?