Carbon footprints of big tech companies and their climate commitments

Gayatri Vinayak
·7 min read
CO2 Footprint icon on a computer key
CO2 Footprint icon on a computer key

The lockdown and mobility restrictions brought on by the pandemic may have led to a fall in carbon emissions in 2020, however, the increased energy requirements brought on by work from home and remote working has impacted the environment. As per a study by researchers from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one hour of video conferencing or streaming emits between 150-1000 grams of carbon.

The good news, however, is that at least one in five of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies, representing sales of nearly USD 14 trillion, have net-zero commitments, as per a report by Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) and Oxford Net-Zero.

While a majority of these companies are in the personal goods and household products sector, technology companies are also doing their bit to reduce their carbon footprints. We look at the carbon footprints of the big tech companies and what they are doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

Netflix: As per a report by the French think tank, The Shift Project, Green Watch, streaming 30 minutes of high-definition content on Netflix can result in significant greenhouse gas emissions - equivalent to driving almost 6 kms. Further, a study backed by Germany's Federal Environment agency, that calculated the amount of carbon dioxide produced by data centres where material is stored for streaming, and by the transmission technology used to get it to consumers, concluded that 3G mobile technology results in a hefty 90 grams of CO2 per hour.

The figures published by The Shift Project has, however, has been contested, with many saying that it is an inflated one.

On its part, Netflix has used a tool called DIMPACT, a collaborative project developed by researchers from the University of Bristol, Carnstone and 12 of the world's media companies, to calculate its carbon footprints. As per the streaming giant, one hour of streaming content on its platform emitted less than 100gCO2e (100 grams of CO2 equivalent). This is less than the amount of carbon emitted while driving the car for nearly half a kilometre.

Netflix, however, has not announced any targets for reducing its carbon footprints, as of now.

Amazon: In a report it had self-published, Amazon announced that its carbon footprints increased by 15 per cent in 2019 – its business operations emitted 51.17 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, up from 44.4 million metric tonnes of CO2 in 2018. This is equivalent of keeping 13 coal-burning power plants running for a year.

Amazon has said that it’s carbon footprints include emissions from Amazon-operated and third-party freight, electricity use, Amazon-branded products, capital goods, business travel, packaging, customer trips to Amazon’s stores, and other purchased goods and services.

The company is working towards reducing its huge carbon footprint though – in June 2020, Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge Fund, with the commitment to turn net zero carbon by 2040. With an initial funding of USD 2 billion, the Fund aims to support the development of sustainable and decarbonising technologies and services to enable Amazon to meet its energy goals.

In December 2020, Amazon overtook Google to become the biggest corporate buyer of renewable energy. The company has set up a new solar farm in Virginia and has ordered 100,000 electric vehicles to deliver packages to customers.

Microsoft: The American multinational tech company announced that it has reduced its carbon emissions by 6 per cent from 11.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent to 10.9 million metric tons in the one year since it had announced its carbon pledged in January 2020. Further, it has also paid for the removal of an additional 1.3 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Microsoft had promised that the company, and its supply chain, will go carbon neutral by 2030. It hopes to go a step further by 2050 and "remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975."

Microsoft has launched a programme to cut both the company’s direct emissions and for their entire supply and value chain by the deadline. The company plans to invest USD 1 billion of its own capital into a Climate Innovative Fund to accelerate the development of carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies.

Apple: Brazilian consumer watchdog, Procon-SP recently fined Apple USD 2 million for selling iPhones without chargers and earphones. The company had announced in October that it will stop including the accessories in iPhone boxes, in a bid to reduce carbon emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions from Apple’s manufacturing process was 18.9 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent in the fiscal year 2019.

The company has pledged to go 100 per cent carbon neutral across its entire business and manufacturing supply chain and product life cycle by 2030. In its 2020 Environmental Progress Report, Apple details steps to reduce emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 and develop innovative carbon removal solutions for the remaining 25 per cent of its comprehensive footprint.

Apple has also made commitments with 70 suppliers to use 100 per cent renewable energy for manufacturing its products. It adds that once completed, these commitments will avoid over 14.3 million metric tonnes of CO2e every year – which is equal to taking 3 million cars off the road each year.

Apple is also increasingly making its newer products from recycled material.

Climate activists, however, add that most of Apple’s emissions do not come from its offices – the factories that supply the parts for Apple products, such as screens, batteries, phone casing, etc, produce around four times the pollution it emits to assemble an iPhone.

Facebook: As per the social media giant’s sustainability report, a user’s annual carbon footprint is 299 gCO2e, less than boiling water for tea. However, this adds up to a lot if we consider that the platform has more than one billion users.

On its part, Facebook has pledged to reach net-zero GHG emissions for its value chain in 2030. Through the company’s Responsible Supply Chain programme, Facebook will partner with suppliers “to build capacity on data reporting and to support on-site energy assessments that identify energy reduction opportunities and improve environmental performance."

It aims to build on these engagement programs and provide support for energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy procurement.

Alphabet Inc: In its Google Environmental Report 2019, Google said that it emits less than 8 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per day to serve an active Google user. This, as per the company, is defined as someone who performs 25 searches and watches 60 minutes of YouTube a day, has a Gmail account and uses other key services. However, Google has nearly four billion users

The company has been making huge strides towards its climate commitment. Google first committed to going carbon neutral in 2007 and became a ‘net zero’ company in 2017, buying renewable energy to match its energy usage. Google neutralised its legacy carbon footprint since its founding, in 2020, making it the first major company to become carbon neutral for its entire operating history. 

It has also vowed to include recycled materials in all its hardware products by 2022, along with making its product packaging plastic-free by 2025. The company also announced a goal of powering its entire operations with carbon-free energy 24/7 by 2030. In a blog post, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet Inc wrote, "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."

The IT behemoth is also the world's second-largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.