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Facebook's ramping up its data center footprint, and trying to hit sustainability goals, all at the same time.

Photo: Facebook

Facebook's data center in Odense, Denmark.

Facebook's closer to its sustainability goals, but not quite there

It's investing in renewable energy in a big way, but it's tough to keep up with data center growth.

As Facebook has gone from "social network for chatty college kids" to effectively powering a version of the internet with data centers and offices all over the world, the company's begun to think a lot more about sustainability. Good for the world, good for the bottom line, everybody wins!

This year should be a big milestone in those efforts. Facebook has said its goal is to have its own operations be 100% sustainable by 2020 and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% compared to 2017 levels. On Tuesday, Facebook put out its most substantive sustainability report yet, with a look into how all that was going as of the end of 2019. (Luckily not much has changed since then, eh? )

  • First, the numbers. Facebook has reduced its GHG emissions by 59% since 2017, up from the 44% reduction it had achieved by the end of 2018. It's still short of the 75% goal, but getting closer. It's also up to having 86% of operations powered by renewable energy, compared to 75% in 2018.
  • To that second number: Facebook is now one of the world's largest buyers of renewable energy, but its overall electricity use spiked almost 50% in 2019 alone, its biggest jump in years. It spent 2017 and 2018 massively ramping up its data center footprint, and it looks like that's showing up in the electric bill.

To see whether those numbers are good or not, I looked at other sustainability reports, and it turns out Facebook's doing pretty well! Amazon, for instance, runs 42% of its (obviously much more complicated) operations on renewable energy. But Apple says it's already at 100% renewable energy and has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 64%.

Facebook's been investing in renewables such as wind farms and solar arrays for years, and is also working on water-conservation projects in places where it has a data center (which tend to be extremely thirsty). Along with the report, the company's also proudly touting the performance of its data center in Odense, Denmark. (Complete with pictures of swans happily chilling in the water nearby. Because, sure.)

  • The data center runs on wind power, and Facebook said it also worked with the local heating company to turn excess data center energy into heat for the surrounding town.

Facebook knows better than most how much this stuff matters, including to its users. The company identified "Acting Greener" as the No. 1 macro trend in conversations on Facebook last year.

  • "People have been talking about sustainability for years," the company found. "Now, many people are making small lifestyle changes that have a big impact on the environment as access to information and eco-friendly products grows around the world."

We're going to have to wait another year to see what the pandemic, the recession and the general global upheaval do to these corporate efforts. I don't think "Acting Greener" will be the most-talked about thing on Facebook in 2020, and big tech companies have a lot of other things on their plates at the moment. But climate change isn't going away, and neither should these projects.

A version of this post will appear in Wednesday's Source Code. Sign up here.

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