Sundar Pichai (File image)
Climate Change is now a visible part of the Google experience. The infotech giant unveiled a suite of products and plans on October 6 which integrated, or will integrate, features to enable Google users to make sustainable choices.
Among them are information about the most eco-friendly route on Google Maps, carbon emissions for flights with green badges for low-emission flights in its search results, indicative badges for eco-hotels, rebates for hybrid or electric cars, sustainable alternatives to energy-intensive products in its search, recalibrate Google Nest thermostat to reflect cleaner energy sources, and shows a new layout with explainers and credible information on Climate Change.
Rolling out some of these updates, CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet Sundar Pichai said, “(Today) Climate Change is more than a threat…it’s the most profound risk we face”. His words and the greener suite of products show Google as a conglomerate that’s sensitive to the Climate Change phenomenon, and willing to go some distance to demonstrate its commitment to action.
Conscious of its pre-eminence in the new economy, and perception management, Google would like to position itself as a responsible private player on Climate Change, an issue now consistently in headlines all over the world because its impact threatens to disrupt life itself.
Google might earn a round of applause from Climate Change activists, and world leaders who will gather later this month for COP26, the United Nations’ Climate Change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference is significant because national governments are supposed to commit to net-zero emissions to bring down global emissions so the world has a chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
Google’s actions, symbolic or not, will yield a cumulative impact that is likely to be significant given its humongous user database. However, the giant has played safe by offering choices, and presenting suggestions to users rather than taking down the non-sustainable options. Can industry leaders really stop at offering environmentally sensitive and sustainable choices? Shouldn’t they discourage or eliminate unsustainable products? The time for debates, and choices is well past us. Climate Change moved from an environmental issue to an economic one years ago, and is now an urgent multidimensional crisis.
To be sure, Google can be commended for the steps it has taken to be environmentally sustainable years before this became a differentiator, or buzz-phrase in big business. The conglomerate claimed to have become carbon-neutral back in 2007; importantly, it has promised to function on carbon-free energy by 2030. Its recent changes are in line with its larger plans for sustainability, but it’s tempting to think of the cumulative mitigating impact they may have already had if they had been rolled out earlier, even last year, or if the conglomerate had taken tough business decisions to not showcase unsustainable products.
However, one Google will not make a summer, to tweak a well-known idiom. The economic world needs a tectonic shift in its relationship with the environment, and urgently needs to examine its energy sources, emissions, and its commitment to addressing the climate crisis in tangible ways. There can be no cosmetic changes or Band-Aid measures. The time for these is long over.
Is the big business or corporate sector being unduly burdened? The Carbon Majors report of 2017 showed how just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988; it was compiled from a database of publicly available emission figures, and it was believed even then that the true picture might be worse.
Four years and a pandemic later, it may well be. There are lists of corporations that are the world’s worst polluters, highest carbon emitters, and so on. There are also lists of Climate Change activists around the world lethally attacked by corporations or their front outfits. Global Witness, an international organisation which has tracked such attacks for nearly a decade, recorded 227 only in 2020, or an average of more than four activists or defenders a week, which it said was an under-estimate.
The top polluting industries remain the usual suspects: energy, transport, agriculture, fashion, and retail. The spotlight is really on fossil fuel producers, and direct users such as transport, but mega corporations such as Google are enablers or platforms for some of the usual suspects. This is why Google’s willingness to change is welcome; though it needs to go far beyond the steps it has now taken.
Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based senior journalist and urban chronicler.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.