Google updated its 2012 carbon emission figures last week, and among the numbers is this interesting tidbit: a typical Google user can use the company's services without leaving a carbon footprint. That's thanks to Google's vigorous pursuit of offsets as part of a far ranging carbon management strategy, which has enabled the company to claim a carbon-neutral status for the past six years.
Even without the offsets, the growth of cloud computing has contributed to an extremely modest carbon footprint for an active Google user. The company calculates that it comes out to about 8 grams of carbon daily, or the equivalent of driving one car one mile per month.
Of course, the problem is when you multiply those 8 grams by hundreds of millions of Google users, you've got a carbon footprint of enormous proportions, so while it's fair enough for Google to pat its users (and itself) on the back, the takeaway here is that offsets are an essential part of an effective carbon strategy. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at what Google has done to achieve its carbon-neutral position.
One useful thing about Google's per-user breakdown is that it provides a specific benchmark that individuals and businesses can use to get a handle on the carbon footprint of their own Internet activity.
According to a recent post on the Google Green blog, to get to the mile-per-month figure the company assumed that a typical, active Google user does 25 searches per day, watches an hour of YouTube per day, and uses Gmail and other services.
If you find yourself, or your company, using Google services well in excess of that pattern, it's not safe to assume that your usage is carbon neutral, and it might be time for you to consider adding some offsets of your own to the equation.
As for Google users who fit the typical pattern, it's instructive to take a look at all of the backstage activity that goes into enabling a "guilt-free" internet experience, carbonally speaking.
One obvious strategic area is renewable energy and energy conservation, and in that regard, Google has ranged far and wide. Along with significant solar energy and wind energy investments, among the company's many projects are on-site biofuel production and heat reclamation from wastewater.
Google services also ripple out to affect other businesses and households. Google Earth, for example, was recently used by the University of California - San Diego to develop a free online solar map that helps calculate the most efficient placement for rooftop solar panels, and the company's Google.org funding arm developed an internationally recognized geothermal map.
We noticed a while back that the sporting goods company, REI, has been able to expand its business without a proportional increase in carbon emissions, and Google's carbon calculations demonstrate a similar phenomenon.
Last year marked the fourth in a row that Google's carbon emissions actually dropped when calculated on a per million dollars of revenue basis.
As for the key role played by offsets, Google has developed a brief white paper on carbon offsets laying out the thinking behind its strategy.
The white paper makes the case for purchasing offsets that go far beyond a company's core business activities, basically because those investments can help manage global carbon issues that are urgently in need of addressing.
Globally, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are a significant issue, and Google's white paper highlights its involvement in methane capture from manure at a livestock operation in North Carolina, in collaboration with Duke University. In addition to managing global emissions, such projects also promote local environmental health by offering an alternative to conventional open lagoons and field spraying of animal waste.
The livestock project also has the potential to support local economic development by enabling farmers to expand their operations without running afoul of environmental regulations.
It's also worth noting that non-core offset projects can enable a company to promote a good citizen image by supporting national goals. The manure-to-gas project, for example, supports the federal AgStar program of the Department of Environmental Protection.
[Image (cropped): Google logo by Robert Scoble]
Follow me on Twitter.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.