The greening of GAFAM : reality or smokescreen ?
In 2019, digital sector was responsible for 3.8% of CO2 emissions and 5.5% of the electricity consumption worldwide. The increase of connected items also grows environmental footprint : 1 billion in 2010, 34 billion for 4.1 billion users (excluding accessories ; according to GreenIT.fr) and estimated at 48 billion in 2025. We have to add the pollution of data centers and networks. Greening is aimed at both energy optimization while improving the brand’s image.
• The emergence of environmental issues.
GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) took up environmental issues at the start of the 2010 decade, following the first reports from NGOs such as Greenpeace.
Therefore, we observe a trend towards GreenIT or Green Computing : for example, some relocations of data centers in Siberia or collaboration with Greenpeace.
The energy-intensive aspect of data centers is due to air conditioning to cool them ; that’s why Siberia is privileged.
To illustrate it, Google created a data center in Finland where they use seawater to remove heat from servers. They also set up a white paper to be transparent about their green data centers and their energy efficiency.
As early as 2013, Apple claimed that all of its data centers were powered by renewable energies like solar and wind ; they also announced to take back the old electronic devices and think about greener products while filing a patent describing the charging of computers, tablets or phones via solar energy.
As for Microsoft, they announced to have covered 100% of their needs by renewable energy in 2014 while they started their project in 2012.
Google said they used 100% renewable energy in 2017 by purchasing green energy, Facebook may reach the goal this year. Jeff Bezos announced in September 2019 Amazon‘s commitment to zero gas emissions by 2040 and the use of 100% renewable energy by 2030 ; in order to begin that process, in April 2019, Amazon revealed the inauguration of four new wind farms and a solar station.
« Apple was a pioneer, followed by Facebook and Google. Amazon […] reacted later. » (Agathe Martin, financial analyst at Fabernovel).
• New commitments : the appearance of a « green wave ».
On the 17th of January 2020, before the World Economic Forum in Davos (dedicated to the environment this year), Microsoft released multiple commitments to reach a negative carbon footprint by 2030 and signed the UN’s project « Business Ambition for 1.5°C » which revises upwards the objectives of the 2015’s Paris Agreements (2°C). Microsoft wants more than zero emission: their goal is to be able to reduce carbon in the atmosphere by 2030 and the total suppression of all emissions by 2050 from the firm since its launch in 1975. They announced a 50% reduction on their direct emissions and those of supply and value chains, a knowledge transfert of their technology to assist suppliers and customers to become greener, the creation of an innovation funds for climate (one billion dollars) and the publication of an annual report related to sustainable development.
Jeff Bezos announced, in mid-February, the creation of a 10 billion dollars fund « for the Earth » to supply « scientists, activists, NGOs – any effort that offers a real opportunity to help preserve and protect the natural world ».
Apple explained that they will reach the total carbon neutrality for supply chain and products in ten years ; as a result, they planned to operate two wind turbines farms in Denmark to get them started at the end of 2020.
Likewise, Facebook has the same objective for its entire value chain, on the same time span than Apple. They also advertised for four commitments : to launch an information center about the climate (based on the work of NGOs and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [ICPP]), to accelerate the energy transition, to compensate for 100% of their carbon emissions linked to their activities and to promote #OurPlanetChallenge to fight against global warming. They finally target 75% reduction of emissions.
Mark Zuckerberg said « As we have seen the fires crossing the west coast of the United States and the flooding in South Sudan and South Asia, it is clear that climate change is real and the need for action is growing more urgent every day ».
Google commits to offset all of its emissions in real time within 10 years : « We are now making a commitment to compensate in real time and locally, to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in zero carbon by 2030, at each of our sites around the world » affirms Fabien Vieau (Director of Data Center and Energy Sustainability for Europe at Google).
Google is also committed to pay off its « carbon debt » by purchasing enough carbon credits to offset all of its emissions between 1998, when it was created, and 2007.
For Agathe Martin, these commitments result from a « growing pressure from all stakeholders » : end customers « now want to consume sustainably » and investors « who are increasingly creating specific funds including environmental criteria », employees « who no longer hesitate to mobilize » (at the end of January, 350 employees of Amazon openly criticized the environmental policy in an online petition).
Moreover, she adds : « Deploying an environmental strategy takes a lot of effort, but it comes with significant benefits : improving your brand image, engaging customers and talents, anticipating potential regulations rather than being subjected to them ».
Although there are benefits, today it’s a kind of obligation for companies : « Today, to be politically correct, companies must at least position themselves on the climate », explains Frédéric Bordage. He explains : « For the GAFAM, it comes down to CO2 emissions and renewable energies, because they only meet the minimum demands of their customers, which reflect the understanding of the issues by civil society. »
It is therefore necessary to ask whether it is a sincere approach or a marketing strategy, as evoked by Jean-Christophe Liaubet (associate director at the consultancy firm Fabernovel) : « Since the end of 2019, we have been witnessing the appearance of a green wave within GAFAM. The environment is now at the heart of their communication. Is it greenwashing or sincere initiatives? Probably a little of the two ».
• A real desire for change or a simple greenwashing ?
For Agathe Martin, « Today, the actions of the GAFAM are more aimed at minimizing damages ».
There is always depletion of natural resources and extraction of rare metals, waste management and other issues. « The promises made by technology companies are going in the right direction, but this is absolutely not enough to make it possible to concretely reduce environmental impacts », regrets Frédéric Bordage.
To go further, technology companies must impulse sustainable choices : users represent 54% of the overall digital energy balance, networks represent 29% and data centers 17%, according to GreenIT.
Apple claims to have « reduced by 70% the average energy used by its products since 2008 ».
Since 2015, a program was launched to encourage subcontractors to use 100% of clean energy for their productions dedicated to the company.
However at the same time, Apple is accused of program obsolescence. In 2017, the company admitted that its iOS system deliberately slows down the processors of several older iPhone models and justified this by the goal of « extending the life of devices ».
Regarding Google, most of its data centers rely already on renewable energy, but for the rest of its operations and offices, it’s not the case.
In concrete terms, to run all year, Google always needs carbon energy even if nearly 50 partnerships were signed to buy renewable, photovoltaic or wind energy. The Responsible Digital Institute (INR) also criticize the Google‘s « know everything, keep everything » model : indeed, keeping such old data, like videos on Youtube or e-mails, is useless and energy intensive.
Moreover, this carbon neutrality can only be achieved by integrating nuclear energy : « We include nuclear in our 2030 target, just as the Paris agreements include this type of energy on their own targets », confirms Fabien Vieau.
In addition, the environmental impact of a data center is not the only cause to the consumption of electricity. It is also necessary to take into account the sterilisation of soils and the massive water consumption for cooling this kind of infrastructures.
In the 2019 Google‘s environmental report, it is written that Google consumed, in 2018, more than 17 billion liters of water for their data centers around the world, it means the consumption of 310 000 French people for a year.
As an example, Microsoft installed an underwater data center which reduced its water consumption.
At the end of October, Amazon launched a label : « Climate Pledge Friendly », grouping certified « eco-responsible » objects offered by the firm (more than 40,000 items stamped with certificates from Fairtrade International or Carbon Trust). According to British activists from Greenpeace, the platform delivers between 4 and 5 billion parcels per year worldwide ; so it’s not a lot of items. « Amazon implicitly admits that the rest of its business model falls short. », said Will McCallum, campaign manager for Greenpeace UK, to The Guardian. Frédéric Bordage also argue there is a dichotomy inside Amazon which « destroys products returned by customers when it costs less ».
To conclude, there is an ambiguity in the GAFAM’s speeches.
They have « to review their economic model », insists Frédéric Bordage. For the Ademe, zero carbon or carbon neutral are uncorrect statements, if they do consider the entire life cycle of infrastructure. « If we build a photovoltaic power plant to offset emissions, the kWh consumed will certainly be carbon neutral, but neither the construction of the plant nor its recycling », precised Hervé Lefebvre, director of Adaptation, development and low carbon trajectory at Ademe.
However, the activities of the Internet giants doesn’t work with sustainable consumption, and more widely with the environmental protection because « their interest is respectively in selling more and more products and massively aggregating data to attract new customers and advertisers. ». Agathe Martin go further by adding « All stakeholders are full of contradictions. Consumers themselves are not prepared to ignore the comfort acquired by digital technology. ».