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Sometimes greening Google means getting a little dirty

Back in 2007, when we decided to be carbon neutral, we knew the basic outline of how to do it, but there were many details to be worked out. Since then we've learned a lot about the nitty gritty details of carbon neutrality and are ready to share some of our knowledge. Our first priority is energy efficiency of our operations: for the last decade we’ve been engineering and building our data centers, machines and software to have the power of a sports car with the fuel economy of a hybrid. Next, we find ways to run our offices and data centers on renewable energy.

For what’s left over, we buy carbon offsets.

It’s my job to manage Google’s carbon offset portfolio, which means finding carbon offsets and making sure they meet our high standards. Since carbon offsets aren’t the most intuitive concept—you can’t pick one up and touch it—it’s worth spending a moment describing what one is.

The anatomy of a carbon offset

A carbon offset represents a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. A developer can create a carbon offset when she builds a project that lowers greenhouse gas emissions. Revenue from the sale of the offset finances the installation of the project. Google decided from the start that we wanted to be sure that the carbon offsets we buy lead to real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. There are lots of different flavors and styles of carbon offsets, so I review each project’s history, documentation and financials to be confident that the project we’re investing in results in greenhouse gas reductions that wouldn’t have happened without our investment. To be sure we’re buying what we think we’re buying, I also visit each site to get my hands dirty—to see the equipment and interview the staff. Finally, a third-party verifier makes sure the project is delivering the reductions claimed.

This video provides a window into how we evaluate projects, showing two examples of the types of projects we buy. The first project is located at the St. Landry Parish landfill in Louisiana. This landfill is a perfect example of how big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can pop up in some out-of-the-way places. (As my little brother likes to say, I am in the business of “dump investigations.”) We then visit a project at a hog farm in North Carolina. Both of these projects reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing and destroying methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Google's carbon offsets

We’re particularly proud of the hog farm project as it represents our new partnership with Duke University. The Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative and its partners built an innovative waste management system at Loyd Ray Farms in Yadkin County, outside of Winston-Salem, NC. The system reduces greenhouse gas emissions, generates electricity, makes for a healthier local environment and benefits farmers and communities economically. Through this pilot, Duke is showing how these projects can make economic sense for North Carolinians and lead to dramatic reductions in emissions over the long term. We hope that technologies like this can scale across the U.S. and the world.

If you want to learn more about how we evaluate carbon offsets and apply them to our carbon footprint, check out this white paper. Today, we believe that high-quality carbon offsets are the best way to eliminate the emissions we can’t yet get rid of through efficiency and renewable energy. We are continuing to search for new and better ways to cancel out our greenhouse gas emissions—with more efficient operations, with more renewable energy and with more reductions from innovative products, projects and technologies.

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