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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Where will Google lead the world on sustainability?

Tim Nixon

04 Apr 2018

Where is Google leading the world on the big topic of sustainability?  Sitting down with Kate Brandt, Lead of Google’s sustainability initiatives, is illustrative both in terms of her infectious positive energy for change as well as the impressive record to which she has to point.  Even more intriguing is where Google may be headed next.

First, looking backward at Google’s own record on sustainability, the most material aspect of their performance is on greenhouse gas emissions.  Or more precisely, the lack of emissions.  For the last 10 years, Google has delivered on a commitment to carbon neutrality.

Putting this in perspective, Google is an enormous user of energy, powering giant data server farms which sustain the ever-growing demand on its search engine.  But as Brandt says, “We are laser-focused on efficiency, with an overall record of being 50% more efficient than the industry average on our use of energy for data centers.”

And efficiency is the key prong of their strategy to stay carbon neutral.  “We continue to advance on our machine learning, which allows us to deploy algorithms which take already very efficient operations, and reduce energy use further, allowing us to drive steadily increasing amounts of computational output for the same amount of energy.”

Adding to efficiency is the purchasing of renewable energy when available, and offsetting carbon emissions when they are unavoidable in their operations.  “Together, these three approaches to our emissions footprint allow us to commit to carbon neutrality for our global operations.”  And Google is not keeping this methodology a secret.  “We want to lead by example,” says Brandt, and she adds that, “this is not about just our environmental strategy.  Sustainability is core to our business strategy.  Looking at our business through a sustainability lens is not only good for our environmental impact, it’s good for our bottom line. It’s core to our success.”

So, with this impressive accomplishment, what is next for Google on the sustainability front?  No doubt they will continue to push for these efficiencies and carbon neutral emissions across their growing business footprint.  But what about helping to drive sustainability more generally in the global economy?  Ms. Brandt summarizes “what I’ve found tremendously exciting about Google is that sustainability is baked into our strategy.  I totally agree that the business case for sustainability is a very strong driver of competitor differentiation.  We’ve proved this at Google.  And it’s true more broadly.”

So, given Google’s vision “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” can we expect Google to lean into its role as a leader in sustainability in terms of how it makes information “useful”?  Will it start to remake how we understand the world in its own sustainable image, providing increasing help to everyday consumers who would like to combine sustainability with their purchasing decisions?  Could Google help us find the closest, most sustainable hamburger, or answer questions we have about whether the plug-in hybrid I’m about to buy is actually going to produce a more sustainable outcome for the world over its life-cycle? Perhaps beginning down this pathway, Google provides tools such as satellite data of the earth, solar power potential with Project Sunroof, and sustainable fishing data with Global Fishing Watch.

When I asked Ms. Brandt whether the world is becoming more sustainable, she said this: “I think the world is becoming more sustainable.  We have seen huge shifts in the level of collaboration across cities, companies, and individuals.  Increasing levels of awareness.  Very positive momentum.  As we change our relationship to our natural resources, a vision of a circular economy is emerging where we have a world of more abundance not less.  I’m an optimist by nature, and there is a tremendous amount of work to do.”

It will be fascinating to see what Google does next, especially given the emerging need for leadership on connecting decision makers of all stripes with a deep, fact-based and more sustainable understanding of the world.

 

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