Why are Google, CDP and the Navy in the same room?

Why are Google, CDP and the Navy in the same room?

Image from Google Earth Engine Timelapse of erosion on Cape Cod, Massachusetts

As Googlers reported to work last week on their spacious campus bedecked with swing sets, compost bins and community vegetable gardens, a slew of people in the sustainability professions showed up, too.

Hosting its spring U.S. workshop on a Google campus was how CDP, the carbon and natural capital use reporting organization, signaled its move to Big Data.

The event also could be understood as how Big Data companies such as Google signaled their commitment to the low carbon economy.

Either way, there’s no question that use of Big Data is central to sustainability, not only in Internet of Things solutions for reducing energy and water use but also as the vehicle to trace and understand environmental conditions and consequences of operating decisions — be it NASA data on changing climate and land characteristics or disparate information from corporations' vast supply chains.

Companies — and their investors and customers — are realizing that the majority of a corporation's environmental impacts result from what happens in its supply chain rather than inside its walls. For instance, Walmart found that some 90 percent of emissions it is responsible for come from how its products are made — in other words, its supply chain. 

Customers, investors and sometimes government contractors want to know those total impacts, so companies need ways to discern them and manage them. 

Traditional sustainability reporting has described situations after the fact, what happened last year. What Big Data potentially allows is the real time reporting of conditions and operations. CDP is pursuing that.

"The more types of climate data and comparable data and metrics we can bring in to inform existing decision making processes happening on a daily basis, the more we can shift capital to the low carbon future we all need to be transitioning towards," said CDP Betty Cremmins, senior manager of CDP's Supply Chain program in North America.  

Cremmins also will be heading up a new West Coast office for CDP that will focus on data.

Tuesday, the U.S. Navy became the latest big organization to state it wants to know about the carbon footprint of its suppliers.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the Navy will ask its 100 largest suppliers to report on their greenhouse gas emissions and water use via CDP supply chain program.  

"We’ve got an interest in this. We’ve got skin in the game. As the climate changes, our responsibilities change," Mabus told the CDP gathering. "When sea levels rise, instability almost inevitably follows."

The Navy three years ago committed to get half of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Lance Pierce, president of CDP North America, said that it is important to move into big data answers to supply chain and natural capital reporting and that Google is the logical partner. For one, investors want it. Now the US Navy wants it.

"A lot is going on in the disclosure and data space. In Paris (at COP21), Mark Carney of the Bank of England and Michael Bloomberg announced the creation of a task force on climate risk financial disclosure," he said, referring to the governor of the Bank of England and the founder of Bloomberg media company and the former mayor of New York. "That group will help reset the boundaries on a range of information disclosure pertaining to materiality and climate exposure risk," Pierce said.

Google, for its part, views whatever culpability it has in carbon emissions in a different way but also very tied up with big data. Its data centers, it acknowledges, use a huge amount of power.

"We think we are about 2 percent of the world's compute power," said Jim Miller, Google’s vice president of worldwide operations. "We view ourselves as the lifeblood of the Internet. To do that we run the world’s largest computer, we run the world’s largest supercomputer and we have one fo the world’s largest private telecommunications networks," he told the CDP assembly.

But to do those things Google consumes an enormous amount of energy, so it has strived since 2007 to be carbon neutral, offsetting its carbon emissions by purchasing offsets, with carbon negative activities and by investing in renewable energy at a quick pace. It has entered commitments for two gigawatts of renewable power and spent $2.5 billion on renewable energy projects. 

Miller said Google expects to operate by 100 percent renewable power in a couple of years.

Electricity is a supply chain issue for Google. But Miller said the company's decisions to invest in renewable power purchase agreements are not only for environmental reasons but because such deals are good business.

"When we use renewable energy to power a new data center, it is usually the cheapest form of energy available to us in that particular area," he said. In addition, "it allows us to very predictably predict the price of running that data center," because the energy costs are consistent.

Sharing scientific data on environmental change

Google's big data involvement on natural capital use is also honed into a product.  It has been translating voluminous amounts of government-collected images and data onto digital maps and cloud-based datasets available to scientists to mine and the public to view. Its Earth Engine product has plotted government photos and measurements into timelapse images that delineate such things as how land surfaces or lakes and coastal areas have changed over time. Its case studies so far include retreating ice of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska; erosion along the Cape Cod, Massachusetts, shoreline; the rapid shrinkage of Lake Urmia in Iran; and the cutting away of Amazon rain forests in South America.

Google Earth Engine/Timelapse
<p>From Google's Earth Engine Timelapse of melting ice in the arctic.</p>

Screenshot of Google Earth Engine Timelapse of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska, as it retreats.

Google will go to considerable lengths to site its data centers in places it can procure renewable energy deals or assure that the center is fed by such power, Miller said.

As one recent example, he described a transaction in which Google bought a shuttered coal power plant in Jackson County, Alabama, from the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The plan, though, is to convert the coal plant to a data center, using its transmission infrastracture to import power from farther afield renewable plants.