100 percent renewable? Not really.

Photo by Casey Gomez

On Aug. 28, Facebook announced on its blog that it plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent and will completely power its global operations with renewable energy by the end of 2020.

In this goal, Facebook follows the 140 companies of the RE100 group, which includes big names such as IKEA and Google who have pledged to become “100 percent renewable” in the near future. (Google, which had a head start, achieved 100 percent renewable energy in 2017.)

These 100 percent renewable projects are a step up from carbon neutral programs where companies can claim they are “carbon neutral” by paying other companies to produce less waste — in what’s known as a carbon offset.

While the carbon offset approach has become less popular among companies trying to promote themselves as green, companies like Google and others that now claim to be 100 percent renewable take advantage of another loophole in terminology: financing renewable energy projects in places far away in order to somehow makeup for carbon produced onsite.

On the RE100 group’s website, they list two ways of becoming “100 percent renewable.” The first method is what the lay person — and what I — would consider being truly 100 percent renewable: where all on-site operations are run using renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

The second, while a noble approach, is what ends up being mostly a loophole, where they allow companies to claim being completely renewable through “[purchasing] renewable electricity sourced from generators and suppliers in the market … [including] specific generators (e.g. power purchase agreements), which can be located onsite or offsite. 

It also includes retail purchases from suppliers and utilities and the purchase of stand-alone (“unbundled”) energy attribute certificates.”

However, any solution where companies are allowed to compensate for pumping out carbon by compensating elsewhere is an incomplete solution — although there is a net benefit, it doesn’t end the hot potato game of dodging responsibility for increasing carbon usage over time. Since energy consumption on the whole continues to rise, even companies with rapidly growing carbon usage could claim to be 100 percent renewable simply by paying for renewable energy projects commensurate to their increasing carbon production.

Despite these caveats on how good these 100 percent initiatives are, these companies are moving faster on green initiatives compared to almost every other sector imaginable, a fact which says more about the extreme sluggishness of American society to embrace strong climate-change-preventing initiatives than it says about the speed of these companies.

For example, take universities: Georgia Tech has only pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, a leisurely goal once you realize that by that date ,the effects of climate change will internally displace more than 143 million people across the globe, according to the World Bank.

And since it’s clear that federal government administration isn’t going to push hard to reduce carbon emissions, it’s up to companies, universities, and nonprofit organizations to really get serious on reducing their carbon usage dramatically — before people are displaced and lives are lost.

To summarize: while it’s great that companies are working toward a more renewable future for green initiatives, in the end, shuffling around definitions and carbon production here and there will not suffice, and companies that want to be green need to actually become so by lowering their carbon productions to an absolute zero — or at least as possibly close as they can get.