Google Cloud Sustainability Summit 2022: Building Mole Hills Instead of Mountains

Is it enough? At its first-ever Sustainability Summit, Google unveiled a number of climate-focused technologies and programmes.

Instead of money, green has come to represent the colour of sustainability for many companies in the tech world.

This has been especially true in the UK since COP26 in 2021 and the government’s announcement of plans to transform the nation into “first ever Net Zero Aligned Financial Centre”.

Thanks to this and the rise in importance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles in investing in recent years, businesses across the nation have dedicated themselves to this goal of net zero.

From carbon offsetting partnerships via companies like EcoTree to sustainability reporting measures from firms like SDG Assessment, the tech world is seeing a menagerie of climate-conscious companies spring up to help their less sustainability-inclined peers strive for that net zero goal. All this has come together to drive the sustainable investment marketplace to a $35 billion+ (£28.6 billion+) valuation in 2020, according to a Statista report.

At the first-ever Google Cloud Sustainability Summit, the tech titan unveiled a number of climate-focused technologies and programmes. Chief among them is the announcement that its satellite-processing cloud-computer platform Earth Engine will now be available to the public.

The platform provides planet-wide environmental monitoring and climate data. Previously only shared with scientists and NGOs, Google hopes this technology will “help institutions better understand the risks to infrastructure and natural resources due to climate change”.

Other announcements for the Summit include a pilot programme to provide clients with carbon-free energy insights, an expansion of the Carbon Sense suite of products, and the addition of new Google Cloud partners focused on sustainability.

According to Google, the pilot programme will allow customers to view both historical and real-time data on their electricity emissions and offers regional and hourly data for extra detail. Clients can also add pre-existing data such as that gathered from the EPA’s Scope 2 carbon footprint guidance to the programme to serve as a baseline for future ESG goal-setting.

Launched in February 2022, Carbon Sense is an update of Google’s collection of carbon-reporting tools, like 2021’s Carbon Footprint. The expansion adds Scope 1 and Scope 3 data to Footprint’s climate reporting, adds an “Identity and Access Management” role to Footprint for non-technical users to access and track company emission data, and a “low-carbon mode” which allows clients to restrict their cloud resources to specifically-designated “low carbon” Google Cloud sites.

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Low-carbon mode comes with a few limitations, however. These restrictions only work on where in the cloud a company’s resources are created. It doesn’t restrict where these resources are stored or processed. The mode only works at a regional level. Resources that are tagged “global” are not affected by low-carbon mode. It is also not universal. Restrictions only apply to a list of supported services.

Google has considered sustainability a core value of the company since its founding and has claimed to be carbon neutral as far back as 2007 and is hoping to use carbon-free energy 24/7 throughout its global operations by 2030.

This claim has historically been difficult to properly assess due to a lack of standardised procedures regarding climate reporting, as well as a complete drought of mandatory climate disclosure legislation. The UK, for example, has only been mandating that companies disclose climate-related financial information at all since April 2022.

While these new features and the net zero future they hope to fulfil can certainly help fight climate change, the question with that nearly 60-year-old topic is always “Is it enough?” This is not a question that can be answered in a vacuum. Going back to the UK’s climate disclosure mandate, the rest of the world has also been relatively slow to adopt such mandates.

China only revealed their own ESG disclosure standard in May 2022. The US’s Securities and Exchange Commission was still taking comments on its proposal of similar standards as late as 20 May 2022. This topic has been in the public discourse since the 1960s, and the worlds of business and government are only just now deciding to talk about it.

So, back to the question. Is it enough? By and large, the answer is “no”. This is a stance Google itself would, at certain points in its history, agree with. In an official 2009 blog post on the subject, then-Google Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl said: “While offsets with strong additionality can achieve real emissions reductions in unregulated sectors at a relatively low cost, we view them as a short-term solution for Google, not as a substitute for other action.”

And that’s the issue. Many companies around the world treat carbon offsetting and net zero as a “substitute for other action” and not the temporary measure it ought to be. It’s walking to the starting line and acting like you’ve already won the race. If these actions were only strong in the short-term in 2009, how is a net zero goal by 2050 in countries like the UK, France, and Spain or the complete lack of a similar goal in the US any less of a Band-Aid on an amputated limb in terms of effectiveness?

The tools and programmes are certainly effective at doing what Google has designed them to do. Now, Google, as well as businesses and governments around the world, need to do better.

Interested in cloud computing? Check out these courses from TechRepublic Academy.

Zephin Livingston
Zephin Livingston
Zephin Livingston is a content writer for eWeek, eWeek UK, IT Business Edge, and SoftwarePundit with years of experience in multiple fields including cybersecurity, tech, cultural criticism, and media literacy. They're currently based out of Seattle.
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