Shadley: Corporations Can’t Fix the Climate Crisis


By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this YouTube video from Google. The video, which was posted on Nov. 18, 2020, provides a timeline of Google’s various sustainability actions, including achieving carbon neutrality in 2007. After watching the video, I found myself completely baffled that Google has been carbon neutral, something that many other major companies are hoping to achieve in the next 10-20 years. And it’s not just Google — in early 2021, GM announced that they will have 30 options for electric vehicles by 2025 and only sell electric vehicles by 2035. In 2020, a record number of companies pledged to reach net-zero emissions. Over the past 6-12 months, commitment to climate action seems to have jumped up another level. For the first time in my life, going green isn’t only the right thing to do, it’s the cool, economically advantageous thing to do too. Every day, it seems like another company hops on the bandwagon to announce their carbon-neutrality goals. But not all claims of carbon-neutrality are created equal, especially Google’s.


“Carbon neutrality,” “net-zero carbon,” “carbon-free” and many other terms are used to describe a company’s climate commitment, but the confusing definitions of those terms make it difficult to understand how that company interacts with the environment. To be carbon neutral, which Google claims to have been since 2007, a company simply has to purchase enough carbon offsets to balance the carbon emissions from their operations. Google has stated that the majority of their carbon offsets have come from capturing natural gas escaping from pig farms and landfills. While it’s certainly beneficial for the climate to prevent methane gas from being released, purchasing carbon offsets allows Google to continue polluting while claiming carbon neutrality. As every business is incentivized to do, companies will look for the cheapest carbon offsets rather than the more costly alternative of eliminating their own carbon emissions. With cheap carbon offsets available, many companies will continue to make the calculation that producing more goods and services, and, in turn, more carbon emissions, is the financially prudent thing to do. In the carbon offset economy, growth is good.

Let’s look at 2009, two years after Google’s carbon neutrality claims, as an example of how they interacted with the climate. Based on an estimate given by Google that year, every Google search accounts for about 0.2g of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. With roughly 800 billion searches coming in 2009, Google searches alone were responsible for 176,000 tons of carbon emissions. Google searches are, of course, only a small portion of Google’s total operations. Not only is Google still contributing to a culture of carbon emissions through carbon neutrality, but they’re actively taking a role in undermining legislation that would drastically reduce our national carbon footprint. In 2018, the company donated to 111 members of Congress that voted against climate legislation 90% of the time. While Google has developed a more ambitious climate plan highlighted in their YouTube video, their lack of transparency and history leaves me cautiously optimistic about their ability to protect and restore the environment.

Changing Social Beliefs and Greenwashing

Genuine climate action may be less of a priority for major corporations, but the appearance of it is important. In 2017, 69% of North American consumers indicated they expect companies to care about the environment. On other continents, except Europe, the percentage was much higher. After Australia’s historic wildfire season in 2020 and the similar wildfire season in America’s West, climate change became a more focal part of the 2020 presidential election than any previous election. In 2016, roughly 2% of voters cited climate change as the most important issue influencing their decision; in 2020 it jumped to 12%, including 22% of Democrats. It’s no coincidence that just two weeks after the 2020 presidential election, where the more environmentally focused candidate won, Google posted that YouTube video revealing that they’ve been carbon neutral for well over a decade. The general consensus about the severity of the climate crisis has shifted, and companies have taken note.

Consumers care about the perceived sustainability of different companies and companies care about convincing consumers to purchase their products. Due to, primarily, time and energy constraints, most consumers rely on businesses to inform them about the sustainability of their products. Greenwashing is the practice of presenting a product, through marketing and false information, as more environmentally friendly than it is. Without easily accessible, transparent information about those products, it is impossible for consumers to know whether companies actually live up to their claims. 

A Better Model

While Google failed to be upfront about their contributions to anti-climate legislators and opted for carbon offsets over reducing their own emissions, another search engine built a new kind of search engine, one with the expressed purpose of combating climate change. In 2009, Ecosia launched with the goal of using 100% of the profits from their search engine business to fund reforestation. Today, Ecosia has planted over 125 million trees, providing communities in developing countries with good-paying jobs in the process. In 2020, 335% of their energy usage was produced from their renewable energy power plants. Between the trees they planted, renewable energy they produced, and reductions they made in their own carbon emissions, Ecosia removed 10,000 times more carbon emissions than they produced last year. Additionally, their employees get paid time off to participate in climate protests. All of this information is readily available on their website and published in their monthly financial reports.

While I’m generally hopeful that the increased concern for climate change will lead to some corporate changes, I’m doubtful that profit-motivated companies will ever be able to take meaningful climate action. Despite Google’s ambitious climate goals, I won’t be switching search engines any time soon.


[email protected]