You can't turn on the news these days without seeing the devastating and likely consequences of climate change, from more prolonged and more intense fire seasons in the west to freak blizzards in Texas to stronger and more frequent storm systems inundating the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard. At this point, the well-established scientific consensus is these worsening conditions are directly related to and exacerbated by man-made climate change. While unregulated industry is looked at as the main culprit, that same business world is in a unique position now to do something about it. Without proper governmental leadership on the issue, big business might be our best chance at curbing carbon emissions.
Of all the corporate social responsibility programs in the tech industry that I get to cover, The Climate Pledge, co-founded by Amazon and Global Optimism, may be the most impactful from an environmental standpoint. The company's efforts to negate its carbon emissions are nothing short of ambitious, and that's saying nothing of the work it is doing to recruit other businesses to make the same commitment. This week Amazon shared a progress report on the initiative, which I followed up with an illuminating one-on-one chat with Amazon's Sally Fouts, Director of The Climate Pledge. Today I'd like to share some takeaways from the progress report and my conversation with Fouts.
Net-zero carbon by 2040
The Climate Pledge is Amazon's commitment to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2040, a decade earlier than the Paris Agreement's schedule. Not only is Amazon targeting its emissions, but it is also encouraging other companies to sign the Pledge and accelerate their own decarbonization. While the international community settled on 2050 for its carbon neutral goal at the Paris Climate Accords, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warned that this was not a fast enough timeframe to curb climate change’s worst potential impacts. Hence, Amazon’s earlier deadline.
I've been following the Pledge since it was initially announced in 2019 and wrote on Amazon's progress report last summer. That update highlighted new signatories and investments in various sustainability projects around the world. Most notably, Amazon announced the creation of a $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund, which will go to early-to-mid stage companies working on solutions that advance the goals of The Climate Pledge.
Signatories are responsible for meeting three sub-commitments. First, they must regularly measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions. I learned from Fouts that the decision not to require further reporting was a deliberate structural one. In her words, “We wanted companies to take action on solving problems rather than doing a lot of additional reporting.” While I understand reporting for the purpose of maintaining accountability, and signatories do commit to this when signing the Pledge, I see where Amazon is coming from. Time is running short and action is critical.
Second, signers agree to put decarbonization strategies within their operations, as outlined by the Paris accords. These include materials reductions, investing in renewable energy, improving operational energy efficiency and other methods.
Finally, they must cancel out any remaining emissions with "additional, quantifiable, real, permanent and socially beneficial" carbon offsets to meet the 2040 deadline. I questioned Fouts further on the topic of carbon offsets, as it has always seemed a little bit like “cheating” to me if a wealthier company can afford to buy out its share of reductions instead of modifying its actual operations. Fouts acknowledged that The Climate Pledge’s signatories do in fact need to be reducing their carbon emissions as much as possible. Still, she noted, “the best science tells us we need to be investing in nature,” as it is the fastest solution to start offsetting. In short, companies should be doing both.
The headline for the progress report was the signing of The Climate Pledge by 86 new businesses, bringing its total roster to over 200 companies. The latest partners include heavyweights like Procter & Gamble, HP, Inc. (another tech leader in environmental sustainability I follow), ASOS, Nespresso, and Salesforce.
While these companies are new additions to the Pledge, that does not mean they are necessarily new to sustainability or early in their respective carbon-reduction journeys. For example, Procter & Gamble (P&G) can already claim to have reduced the total carbon emissions of its global operations by an impressive 52% since 2010. Additionally, P&G has increased its purchase of renewable electricity by 97% and purportedly reduced carbon emissions by 15 million tons by encouraging cold-water washing through its Tide and Ariel product lines.
ASOS has been working to reduce its operational carbon emissions since 2015, cutting the level of CO2e per order by 45% from 2016 fiscal year to 2021 fiscal year. Every cup of Nespresso coffee will be carbon neutral by 2022. Salesforce is attempting to drive down carbon emissions across its supply chain, incorporating its climate commitments into contracts with others.
In total, Amazon's current signatories make up more than $1.8 trillion in annual global revenue, with a footprint that extends across 26 industries in 21 different countries. If the present signers meet their goals, Amazon says The Climate Pledge will have mitigated a cumulative 1.98 billion metric tons of carbon from the 2020 baseline measurement by 2040—equal to 5.4% of current global annual emissions. While it certainly won't solve the climate crisis, that's still a big dent for companies to make on their own volition without regulatory enforcement. And that number doesn't include the potential impact of additional companies that sign onto The Climate Pledge in the coming years. Given the rate Amazon has been adding signatories to the Pledge, there's no telling how the final carbon reduction numbers will look.
Saving the most challenging question for last, I asked Fouts to respond to the accusations that Amazon is "greenwashing," a term that refers to the papering over of lousy press with well-publicized eco-friendly initiatives. While these questions are often deflected with corporate doublespeak, I thought Fouts' response was quite direct and honest: "There's an urgency to the climate crisis that we've never seen with previous crises," she said. "We just frankly don't have time for debates that will prevent us from moving forward." She made the additional point that such accusations of less-than-noble intentions might even dissuade some companies from signing the Pledge and getting to work on reducing its emissions.
There have been fair criticisms lobbed at Amazon in other areas, including from yours truly. No company, even the biggest and most philanthropic, is above reproach. However, nitpicking the underlying motivations of the company's climate initiative instead of looking at its positive, measurable results seems counterproductive to the overall goal of eliminating carbon emissions for good.
Many feel frustrated, even fatalistic, about the glacial pace (forgive the pun) of government action on climate change. There doesn't seem to be much good news these days to hang your hat on, but The Climate Pledge's results are encouraging. It's crucial right now for the world to see that the climate crisis, while daunting, is not a lost cause. It takes commitment, cooperation and accountability, but it is possible to make an actual dent in the global greenhouse gas emissions. Not only is it possible—our futures likely depend on it.