Facebook Caves to Greenpeace After Pressure Campaign

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Greenpeace, which has campaigned against technology companies for nearly two years over their coal-burning electricity use at “cloud computing” data centers, has convinced one – Facebook – to promise to use renewable energy at facilities they build in the future.

The international environmental pressure group’s members have singled out the popular social networking site in a drive to “Unfriend Coal,” in order to fight the global warming problem that is still vivid in their collective imagination. They are particularly incensed that Facebook has built data centers in Oregon (Pacific Power) and North Carolina (Duke Energy) that are customers of utilities that generate a large percentage of their electricity from coal. Greenpeace initiated its campaign using the site’s own online tools against it, by starting groups in English and Spanish that gather members who wanted “Facebook to run on 100 percent renewable energy.” The group also attempted to engage Mark Zuckerberg.

“It is with the interest of your company, your millions of users, and our planet in mind that I urge you to exercise bold and immediate leadership in addressing climate change,” wrote Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, to the Facebook CEO.

The crusade also included online videos by leftist celebrities such as Ed Begley, Jr. (“A company so fresh and so innovative as yours should not be using dirty coal”), photo messaging, and television ads:

The operation against Facebook was part of a larger effort to highlight the energy offenses by technology corporations. Greenpeace issued a report in March 2010 titled “Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change,” which alleged that the trend toward remote data storage could triple greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The organization did not base its assumptions on any scientific facts or data, but instead on reports by other environmental activist groups.

Then in April this year Greenpeace issued “How Dirty Is Your Data? A Look at the Energy Choices that Power Cloud Computing.” The report ranked technology companies on a “Cloud Energy Report Card,” with letter grades, and determined “that many IT brands at the vanguard of this 21st century technological shift are perpetuating our addiction to dirty energy technologies of the last two centuries.” Greenpeace alleged that Facebook had the second-worst level of “coal intensity” in its operations of the companies it ranked, only slightly better than Apple Inc. Facebook was also given a “D” grade for transparency and for “mitigation strategy,” and an “F” for “infrastructure siting.”

NLPC reported the same month how inconsistent environmental organizations are in their grades, with the basis for evaluation acceptable in one group’s eyes, but not in another’s. One example showed the differences in how Greenpeace and Climate Counts evaluated the performance of technology companies in their “cloud computing” operations, or server “farms.” The two groups’ ratings were shown to be worthless when Greenpeace placed Yahoo!, Google and Amazon at the top in energy efficiency, while Climate Counts ranked those three technology giants as the three worst offenders in energy usage.

And last month Businessweek reported how unwieldy the demands of eco-graders and corporate social responsibility activists have become, as “companies are buried in requests for data as groups jockey to be the arbiters of sustainability.” Besides the expectation that businesses “go green” with supposedly cleaner wind or solar energy sources (they’re not), environmental extremists – in the name of “transparency” – are burdening corporate officers with demands for information that make compliance with government agencies like EPA seem like a picnic.

Now Facebook has caved in to Greenpeace’s pressure tactics. Associated Press reported the two entities “called a truce over a clean energy feud.”

“The company said it will now state a ‘preference for access to clean and renewable energy’ when choosing where to build its data centers,” AP reported. “But it stopped short of saying it will only build on such sites.” 

That’s because it never will. Nevertheless, Greenpeace wanted to claim a victory and it did, and now it can go raise more money based upon that. A Web site called Datacenter Dynamics reported the agreement with Facebook also included a commitment to bring other “cloud computing” operators into its Open Compute Project to “share tips on energy efficiency,” and the company will also “invest in ongoing research into the area of green energy.” Who might be the beneficiary of that “investment?”

That still isn’t good enough for some (probably most) Greenpeace members. One, writing on the organization’s blog, demanded, “The company should disclose its overall carbon footprint and use its purchasing power to demand more renewable energy (like, 100 percent) from the utilities that currently supply Facebook’s electricity.” 

If that were feasible, dependable and economical, technology companies engaged in the growing “cloud computing” sector would already be doing it. But there is no way wind, solar and other alternative energies can be built on a scale to handle the nation’s – or technology companies’ – baseload demand. If Facebook, Apple and Google had a choice of powering their data centers completely with renewable energy or not building them, then they wouldn’t build them.

But Greenpeace members have a choice, too: they can either use, or not use, the modern conveniences that are so affordable – and clean enough – because of utilities’ use of coal. Will they follow their consciences, do the right thing, and stop using Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and other technology products because they depend on “dirty” coal? And for that matter, will they stop patronizing the hospitals, supermarkets, gas stations, and other establishments that depend on inexpensive power to meet our needs? In fact, will they remove their homes from the grid and start generating their own, purely “clean” energy for themselves (and not buy those phony carbon dioxide “offset” indulgences that do nothing to reduce their greenhouse “footprint”)?

Didn’t think so.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.