IT's carbon footprint

Background - 27 April, 2010
The IT industry is one of the most rapidly growing emitters of greenhouse gas pollution and industrial consumers of electricity. Without a significant increase in the use of renewable energy, the IT sector’s carbon footprint will continue to grow at a concerning rate, increasing the demand for electricity produced from coal and other forms of dirty energy. Given the projected growth of the IT sector, companies must effectively tackle their own operational emissions and those associated with their products by setting goals to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions on a well-defined timeline.

In this Leaderboard, many companies that had previously established aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals have demonstrated steady progress toward meeting them. Cisco, HP, and IBM are examples of companies that have continued to set more rigorous targets for their operational emissions footprints.

Certain companies have prioritized the purchasing of renewable energy credits and offsets as a means of achieving their greenhouse gas reduction goals. Intel and Dell are two of the largest purchasers of renewable energy credits in the United States (Environmental Protection Agency, Green Power Partnership: National Top 50, January 2010). In future versions of the Leaderboard, however, greater credit will be granted to companies that attempt to directly purchase renewable energy for their operations and take direct responsibility for their environmental performance.

Company Footprint represent 15 out of 100 points, divided as follows:

  • 10 points: Company makes commitment to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions of its own operations on a defined timeline. Maximum points awarded to companies with absolute reduction goals of at least 20 percent by 2012 using a 2008 or earlier baseline.
  • 5 points: Amount of renewable energy used as proportion of total electricity use in own operation. Maximum awarded to renewable use greater than 25 percent of total, or has a target in excess of 25 percent by 2012.

Note: points listed above represent the maximum number of points for given criteria.

Companies that transparently report and measure their progress toward an absolute greenhouse gas reduction target receive higher credit in the operational footprint category. Google claims to be a carbon neutral company, but does not share either its emissions footprint or an overall emissions reduction target. Similarly, Microsoft has not established an absolute reduction target, despite greater transparency than Google in sharing its greenhouse gas emissions measurements.

Target-setting and disclosure are becoming increasingly important as companies like Google and Microsoft expand their operations to build data centers and increase electricity consumption, often increasing the demand for coal-fired power. Carbon neutrality can still result in higher pollution overall as the industry grows its net greenhouse gas pollution.

Greenpeace’s report, Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change, illustrates growth in the IT sector’s electricity consumption — expected to more than triple by 2020 — largely due to the expansion of cloud-based computing. Cloud computing, which relies on centralized data storage infrastructure to deliver real-time information from the internet, is quickly becoming a predominant IT business model.

All IT companies, but particularly IBM, Microsoft, Google and other major players in the cloud computing market, must set strong greenhouse gas reduction targets to ensure that, as their appetite for energy increases, so does their use of renewable sources.