Problem: Carbon Neutral Marketing Paints an Environmental Target on Companies, Google’s Latest Pains has a post on Google’s Carbon Neutral marketing.

May 7, 2009 2:42 PM PDT

Do Google's carbon offsets add up to much?

by Martin LaMonica

Google, a company that runs power-hungry data centers, employs thousands of people, and operates a corporate jet, said on Wednesday that it was carbon neutral for the past two years. How so? Offsets.

The idea of a carbon offset is to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions of a company or person by investing in a project that reduces emissions from the atmosphere.

Google sees offsets as an imperfect method for lowering their total carbon footprint, among other efforts. To detractors, offsets are essentially greenwashing when companies do little more than buy offsets to meet their environmental sustainability goals.

There are many routes an offset purchase can go: wind energy farms, siphoning off methane from landfills, or making buildings more energy efficient. There's an entire industry around offsets, which can be voluntary--as Google has purchased--or regulated in countries that have climate change regulations.

Without offsets, a company--no matter green--would have a hard time claiming to be carbon neutral simply because energy consumption means pollution. Achieving carbon neutrality is complicated by the fact that there isn't universal agreement on how to account for a company's carbon emissions: should it include just a company's operations or also its supply chain and end use of its products?

But, here is part of the problem. This article was posted on May 7, 2:42p. Three days later, May 10, this article is still at the top of the home page on  This means is getting lots of traffic on this article as it is a combination of google, environmental, and questioning google’s action.


I had a nice conversation with Bill Weihl at Uptime’s conference, and he is a technology geek like many of us, and not a marketing guy. What seemed like a simple thing to do to discuss 2 years of carbon neutrality actually made Google a target for many environmental groups.

Even hard-core climate activists see offsets as problematic. Climate advocate Joseph Romm, who writes for the Climate Progress blog, calls them "rip-offsets."

The problem ultimately comes down to how effective offsets are in actually reducing emissions, he says. Offset claims are very difficult to verify, and doing a lifeycle analysis of an offset project--what is the exact net reduction of a landfill methane project?--are very easy to fudge, according to Romm.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office last August published a report saying it's particularly difficult to ensure "additionality." In other words: does a purchased offset truly represent an greenhouse gas reduction above and beyond business as usual. For example, some offsets were tied to a company that was already forced to capture methane to meet existing environmental rules.

Some may see this coverage as bad PR, limiting what can be discussed on this topic and controlling the sharing of information. 

But, I think Google will roll with the coverage, and keep up their efforts with more information. Because, now millions of people have heard Google is carbon neutral.  Yahoo, Dell, and ebay are all carbon neutral as well, but none of them get the coverage Google does.