Are Google Carbon Neutral?

“Carbon Neutral since 2007” it says on the Google homepage.

Google follow a standard called PAS 2060 that is like an instruction guide for businesses and carbon neutrality. You may have seen things like ISO 14001 which is another standard for environmental work. One I was trained in.

If you follow the standard and pass the assessment then you are carbon neutral according to the guidelines. I had no real issue here until I read this comment from Google

“You can still be producing carbon, be connected to a grid that is burning coal. As long as you offset that by purchasing renewable energy somewhere, you can still achieve carbon neutrality.” It’s offsetting programme does not compensate for its emissions by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

What I think Google refer to here is basically carbon credits, or a thing called renewable energy certificates (RECs) we call them in the UK.

The expectations of carbon neutrality would be emissions minus offsets as the PAS standard basically outlines. I can’t see the full rules as it is expensive to buy the standard but this looks correct.

The problem is, if you purchase 100mWh of coal energy and 100mWh of wind energy this is defined as “neutral” in the way Google describe. It clearly is not. It’s like murdering someone and not murdering someone else and saying nobody was murdered. A neutral action that emits nothing does not offset a negative.

Offsets have issues when done properly but good ones should remove what the emissions were. Any real offset is additional, i.e it did not happen without the payment from the company. Google’s renewables are already generated and they are just buying them rather than creating more or taking carbon out the atmosphere. No new renewables are generated here and the price paid is typically far to low to cause new renewables to be built.

Unless Google misspoke this is quite poor but they are following the rules so isn’t their fault. I didn’t like standards when I did ISO14001 for the reason it could be easily cheated. It was a paper trail of thought without any proven reductions being required.

Google also aim to tackle legacy emissions which means what they emitted before they were “neutral” in 2007. They say this is through high quality offsets which is hopefully true.

In many ways Google are great. Getting to fully renewable energy by 2030 is their goal which would be incredible, so this is not an attack on them. They actually have great aims and using PAS 2060 as a stepping stone of progress is great.

Rather, carbon neutrality as a concept is flawed for the simple reason if everyone was carbon neutral carbon emissions would still increase.

 That clearly isn’t neutrality.

How Bad is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin and Energy Use

There is a lot of chat about Bitcoin and electricity use at the moment with many sources quoting that Bitcoin uses “More than all the worlds solar panels create” or “more than XX country”. Whilst I am not defending bitcoin energy use (it is very high) these arguments are incorrect and unhelpful.

In 2020 the total solar power produced was 844TWh, whilst estimates for Bitcoin put it somewhere around 115-139TWh. That means Bitcoin uses the equivalent of 16% of solar energy (roughly). Very high for sure but there is no need to make up stats to make it worse, otherwise you undermine your credibility by parroting an easily disputable “fact”.

 Bitcoin generates energy as people use computers to “mine” (solve complex problems) which gains them bitcoin essentially. How this model of currency compares to the rest is unclear, the current banking system also uses masses of energy and materials (metal etc) which Bitcoin proponents often argue. This is true but this is also not a valid argument, you can’t compare Bitcoin to the global financial system, you would have to compare all the cryptocurrency footprints collectively if you are arguing this system will replace the current one. There is a valid point in here, the metal in our coins also got mined, smelted and shipped so there will be a high material and electricity cost from that and from the bank computer servers. You could easily argue that precious metal mining is worse than Bitcoin mining for sure. Really neither should exist in the form that they currently do. If it is just that Bitcoin uses more energy then maybe that is ok? Afterall, we can probably tackle energy use more easily than say exploitation and child labour in physical mining. Maybe high energy outweighs massive human rights abuses?

But is electricity use the issue?

Many argue that Bitcoin has been set up in many places to use excess energy, indeed I visited a renewable energy place in Scotland who were considering it as they had to dump vast amounts of renewable produced electricity that couldn’t be used by the grid, they just let it out as heat. It’s a tricky area to estimate, you have to look at what Bitcoin’s current output is, estimate the electricity use of the hardware, work out where it is in the world and calculate the fossil fuel/renewable energy mix in use in that country to estimate the carbon footprint.

A study by a cryptocurrency research group estimated that 73% of the energy used in Bitcoin is carbon neutral, a University of Cambridge study says 39%. More than double the US electricity grid and actually a very good number. The reason being it tends to use renewables is that poor areas like South America and Southern China mine the most and have high hydropower grids where energy is often wasted as it cannot be used. This is further complicated when you consider the poverty in these areas, it’s hard to argue with someone in poverty trying to make things better by mining Bitcoin, particularly in a pandemic.

Most Bitcoin energy comes from production and not use, so as mining slows down the overall energy drops. This means the rise will not be exponential and should drop off. It’s not a surprise that a new industry uses more energy than the one it replaced. Laptops use more than typewriters, cars more than horses and smartphones more than landlines. It comes down to whether the increase is justified or not.

Bitcoin does use a lot of electricity and competitors like Ethereum argue they use less as a way to attract customers. I’m not advocating the use of Bitcoin as I do feel the energy use is very high (unless using excess renewables that would be dumped) but misleading stats and figures make this worse.

It is extremely easy for the Bitcoin industry to disprove these arguments. The environmental industry can argue their case for lowering the footprint and pressurise those in power to act. Governments already dislike Bitcoin so it is a fairly easy argument to win meaning it’s such a needless lie to tell.

 We regularly argue against industries that lie about climate change and their emissions and I really hate to see environmental groups go down the same route. The best argument is a true argument regardless of which side you are on.

Biomass: Carbon Neutral or not?

Biomass was recently in the news with the EU reviewing it’s policy, essentially deciding whether they support it. The biomass industry is quite open that is not all good, basically saying the wood used for biomass should be scrap wood or low value wood and we should not be taking good quality forestry and cutting it down for biomass.

This was always a divisive topic with someone telling me years ago that they couldn’t understand why the UK uses high quality wood for biomass whilst others use cheaper wood. Personally, whilst I see the point, I don’t agree that is at all relevant to the carbon neutral argument. It makes no difference what the value of the wood is that you burn in terms of emissions.

Some, mainly politicians and lawmakers, define it as carbon neutral as the tree can only release as much carbon dioxide as it has absorbed in growth. Thus it has taken in X amount and now releases X amount when burned. In theory you then replant and all is well. 

It’s a fair argument, but oil is made of old animal and plant matter too and “only releases what was taken in”, that doesn’t make it ok though. Anything you burn can only give out what it absorbed, that is not valid argument. Neutrality depends on timescale as ultimately everything is a cycle. If we went to biomass on a large scale our carbon emissions would increase dramatically thus it is inaccurate to say it is neutral. Is a forest fire carbon neutral? Unless you actually define what “carbon neutral” means it has no meaning at all.

Timescales really matter here, it’s like offsetting. If a tree takes 70 years to grow and you burn it in 7 minutes that cannot be considered equal just because you replant it. You would need to plan hundreds of trees for each felled tree to compensate and even then you have issues of damage, failure to grow, forest fires etc.

Also, you have air pollution and biodiversity damage that exacerbates the issue. A lot of this is political with scientists saying it is not neutral and politicians saying it is. Burning trees looks cheaper than investing in energy but it really isn’t, not with solar reaching an all time price low. A low that no one predicted incidentally.

Personally I really struggle to see where biomass fits in a low carbon energy system. We burned trees for fuel thousands of years ago, to do it now and call it progress seems a very tenuous argument.

What do people think, is biomass a good thing to support or should we look at other options?

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Lies, Damned Lies and Climate Targets

You have lies, damned lies, statistics and then you have climate targets which may be the most dishonest of all.

The UK 🇬🇧 was the first country to declare a legally binding net zero target for 2050, a point which carbon emissions and absorption should be equal. Great news right? First in the world!🌍

No, Sweden 🇸🇪 actually declared a 2045 target well before the UK did. The UK was just the first country to choose the year 2050 which is a very sneaky bit of messaging. Still, China has a 2060 target so at least we beat them

Or did we?

Net zero is a lovely ambition but you don’t measure the input and output of carbon every year, it’s too much effort. We base targets on baseline years, the UK predictions work from a 1990 baseline. Essentially this means “reducing” (including offsetting) emissions 100% from what they were in 1990. 

China however are reducing their 2005 emissions by 100% by 2060. That is an extra 15 years on our baseline but only 10 years more on the target. Worse still, carbon emissions were far higher in 2005 than 1990 meaning the Chinese aim is actually far more ambitious despite being worse on paper

More vexing, “legally binding” targets are set in law so successive governments, in theory, uphold them. However between now and 2050 there could be 5-10 different governments in power. Who would be held accountable for missing the target? None of them is the answer, “legally binding” is not a term that can be enforced. Even a state government like China’s won’t prosecute itself.

In summary, headline target figures mean little without knowing the baseline they are talking about as everyone is trying to reduce “100% of emissions” from different years meaning they are not comparable.
Comparing climate targets of nations is like comparing progress in a race where everyone starts and ends in different places. The headline number is arguably the least important point of all.

Electric Cars

Last year I was running an event someone was speaking about electric cars. Following the event I got a very critical email from someone detailing why electric vehicles (EV’s) are not good and we should not encourage them. They are not alone, the anti-EV movement is strong, but do they have a point?


The first point of contention is batteries. You need to mine lithium, cobalt or nickel (or a combination) to make batteries and everyone makes theirs slightly different. There is a cost to this in terms of emissions and wider issues like land grabs, child labour, water pollution etc. This is known. Most EV companies are working on this and, like them or loathe them, Tesla are regarded as one of the best in this area. Both in technology and working practises. The point is fair, batteries are hard to make at present and do put the manufacturing cost of an EV (Both £ and carbon emissions) above that of a conventional car.

However, the majority of vehicle emissions are not in manufacturing, they are in using it. If you take the entire life of a vehicle into account then EV outstrips conventional by a very long way. It’s not close. Numbers vary, as EV’s run on electricity and electricity is produced in different ways in different countries so everyone has their own payback period. I live in Scotland where our grid is one of the cleanest in the world so it would be faster than somewhere like Germany who use coal still. An EV in Scotland would probably be more efficient than a petrol car after about six months, even accounting for the higher production cost as the running is so much lower. Obviously the longer you keep the car, the more efficient it becomes. It’s not perfect but it is improving and all new technology is fairly intensive and inefficient to start out.

You can see the pictures from Carbon Brief who explain this. You can never reduce petrol emissions, however electric emissions are going down and will likely continue so even a marginal EV today will be worthwhile long term as the electricity grid gets cleaner. In 2019 the lifecycle emission of an EV were 3x lower than a conventional car.

The Carbon Brief Graph also shows that the best performing conventional car (Toyota Prius) doesn’t win out over even the worst performing EV. This is a great study and really looks into all aspects. Commonly you find people say battery production is high but ignore the fossil fuel and rare earth mining that also happens in conventional cars. This looks at the overall fuel cycle which includes production.

One thing that people don’t look at enough is the end of life. Many claim that batteries die and then are thrown away to pollute and leach into the world. Some likely are. More and more are being reused though. A battery than can move a 2 tonne car around 300 miles is a powerful thing. Even when it becomes less efficient it is still useable and companies are now taking them out of “old” cars and putting them in homes with renewables. Sometimes we make too much renewable energy and can’t store it, an old EV battery is an ideal storage unit in a home and can save a lot of energy. Even if the battery was ludicrously poor, say 10% that is 30 miles worth of charge for a car. Think how many times you can boil the kettle or run the toaster on that if you had only saved some renewable energy? EV’s are already used for this, the National Grid likes people to plug cars in overnight so they can dump excess energy into cars to balance the grid as we still have thousands of wind turbines running at night making energy that needs to go somewhere.

Some people like to go for the tyres and say EV’s are worse and wear down faster causing microplastic pollution. This is untrue. EV’s have faster acceleration and wheelspin will erode tyres (think how often a F1 car changes tyres). Your tyres don’t know they are on an EV, it’s the same tyres and the same weight of car. If you accelerated hard on a petrol car the result is the same, it just takes a bit of caution as people learn more about EV driving.

EV’s have some problems with production, but not significantly more than petrol cars. Certainly not more than they would have had when they were newly made either. Do remember that petrol cars use rare earth metals and mineable resources too.

Of course EV’s alone are not enough and we have to reduce emissions but surely we know that now? But if you can’t walk, cycle or use public transport, an EV is a good option. Importantly, it will be your only option as most car manufacturers have committed to going 100% electric. Hydrogen is another route but is not really viable in road cars, lorries and trains it does work.

In the US and Europe, EV’s are definitely more efficient and will only become more so as time passes.

Source: Carbon Brief

Factcheck: How electric vehicles help to tackle climate change

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