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Kate Zerrenner headshot

How Meta is Approaching Net Zero

After reducing operational emissions by more than 75 percent since 2018, Meta is now targeting net zero GHG emissions across the entire value chain by 2030. We spoke to the technology company's sustainability leaders to learn more.
By Kate Zerrenner
Forest - Nature - Sustainability - Net Zero

When it comes to making decisions about your home, your options are pretty straightforward — you can switch to LED lights to save on energy, choose low-flow fixtures to use less water, or consider rooftop solar to be part of the switch to clean energy. But what about all the things outside your home that are impacted by your actions? It is no different when a large company like Meta looks at its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions landscape. The company first tackled emissions at home — as in, offices, data centers and energy choices — and now it has turned attention to all emissions related to the work it does.

In climate parlance, the in-house work falls under Scopes 1 and 2: direct emissions from sources controlled or owned by a company and those associated with purchased energy. Scope 3 covers the emissions from a company’s value chain, such as purchased goods and services, employee travel, and the use and transport of sold products. The third scope is the heavy lifting for most companies and organizations. 

Increasing ambition on the road to net zero

In 2018, Meta committed to cutting operational GHG emissions by 75 percent from 2017 levels and using 100 percent renewable energy, both by 2020. It further pledged to achieve net zero GHG emissions for its global operations every year going forward. The company exceeded its original target, cutting Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 94 percent by the end of 2020 and closing the gap on the last 6 percent with high-quality carbon removal projects, such as reforestation projects in Kenya and Uganda.

Having put in the work on direct emissions, Meta turned to emissions from its partners and suppliers, aiming to reach net zero GHG emissions across the entire value chain by 2030 in a new goal announced last year. That means cutting emissions associated with capital goods like data center materials and hardware, as well as purchased goods and services like consultants and employee travel.

Surpassing the original target bodes well and gives Meta expertise going into the more ambitious, wide-reaching goal. “Very good data is important to drive decision-making,” Sylvia Lee, program lead for Meta’s net zero program, told TriplePundit. “We have excellent team members to help address our Scopes 1 and 2 with renewable energy, but it took a long time to get the right data. We’re repeating that process now for Scope 3.”

Improving the efficiency of data centers to drive down emissions

Data centers are responsible for about 1 percent of global electricity demand and are a top emissions driver for most technology companies. “Data centers are a very large part of our emissions,” Lee told us. “Scope 1 is mostly offices. Scope 2, because of renewable energy, is mostly zero. For Scope 3, it’s hardware and construction of data centers. We’re trying to focus on reduction as much as we can.” 

To do that, the company is focusing on three key objectives: use less material, switch to low-carbon alternative materials, and increase the deployment of renewable energy across the value chain. Using less means making data centers more efficient and extending the life of current materials using circular economy principles. When data centers need to be upgraded or built, the company will look at alternatives to replace carbon-intensive building materials like cement. Finally, it will work with suppliers to help them set individual carbon reduction and renewable energy goals, Lee said. 

Telecommuting and emissions in the new world of work

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Meta employees, like everyone else, turned to working from home. The pivot to almost universal telework shifted the Scope 1 and 2 emissions related to office operations to Scope 3 emissions related to employee energy use. Like many of the challenges companies faced amidst the pandemic, figuring out how to measure these emissions was entirely new to Meta. “We followed the GHG Protocol [an international standard], and there was not much in there about telecommuting,” Lee said. 

The company turned to a consultant to figure out how to account for these emissions and integrate them into its Scope 3 targets. The resulting white paper created a benchmark for employee energy use by assessing where employees live and the local electric grid mix, as well as the number of hours they worked, average square footage of home office space and average energy usage.

“In the old days, we looked at employee surveys to understand how they commuted to work,” Lee explained. "We offered shuttles to help reduce commuting emissions.” But most of that data was rendered irrelevant by the pandemic, and there’s a general consensus that a number of eligible employees may continue to choose to work remotely even after the pandemic has eased. 

“Moving forward, as we look to return to the office, we anticipate that many  employees will take advantage of our flexible working strategy to go to the office only half the time, while a good portion of our  employees will be fully remote,” Lee said. Thus, figuring out how to address emissions from teleworking will be a necessary part of the company’s strategy to meet its net zero goals.

What’s left: Choosing innovative carbon removal projects

The company managed to meet its Scope 1 and 2 targets primarily through direct emissions reductions, and it’s hoping to do the same with the new net-zero goal. For emissions that can’t be cut, it will invest in carbon removal projects to offset the impact. Here, the Meta team says they’re deliberate in the projects they choose — with an eye toward driving the market, not just choosing from what is available.

While nature-based carbon removal solutions like planting trees are well understood and offer many co-benefits, Meta is also looking toward technological solutions where feasible. “There is a lot of technology that’s promising, but purchasing carbon credits in this space is difficult — they are not yet available or are super expensive,” Patrick Nease, program coordinator for Meta’s carbon removal program, told TriplePundit. “We see ourselves playing a role in investing in this space.”

Still, so far the methodology is not adequate to verify and quantify many carbon removal technologies, Lee said. “We want to be a participant and also a driver so that robust methodologies can exist in technological carbon removal,” she told us. “We want to drive the space,” Nease added, “but be careful in how we drive it.”

Lessons learned

Having already set and surpassed an ambitious climate goal, Meta will look to leverage the lessons it learned to do the same with value chain emissions, Lee said. Meeting the 100 percent renewable energy goal, for example, means renewable energy is now part of the structure of the company. “It has become an integral part of how we do business,” she explained. “Now when we build a new data center, renewable energy is a must. So how do we continue to embed sustainability in our core processes and existing company processes? How do we work with key suppliers to embed it into our business? How can we share our knowledge in a way that’s helpful to them?”

Scope 3 emissions are complicated and not always straightforward. Measuring is the first step, followed by building the target and figuring out how to meet it. In the end, maybe the Scope 1 and 2 goals are less like a house and more like the foundation from which to build.

This article series is sponsored by Meta and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Image credit: Tim Swaan/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner