Two years ago, Jeff Bezos strapped himself to the top of a wind turbine and smashed a bottle of champagne to signal his company’s commitment to renewable energy, though at the time his declaration lacked the kind of transparency and rigor of corporations that were leading on climate issues.
On Thursday, with the world’s attention focused on climate change like never before, Bezos announced what amounts to a wholesale repowering of Amazon, and became the first signatory to one of the world’s most ambitious and rapid corporate decarbonization plans.
He said Amazon would be carbon neutral by 2040 — 10 years ahead of the 2050 timeline scientists say is necessary to stave off the worst impacts of global climate change.
“We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue,” Bezos said at a Washington, D.C., news conference.
The reductions will be an enormous challenge for a company whose main businesses require fleets of trucks, vans and jets, and a global network of energy-hungry data centers – all still steadily growing. Amazon said its 2018 greenhouse-gas emissions totaled 44.4 million metric tons in 2018, the first time it has disclosed its carbon footprint.
Bezos outlined huge changes to the way Amazon will power its transportation and infrastructure, some of which it has already done: Amazon Web Services reached 50% renewable energy in 2018, for example. Amazon expects to power all of its operations with renewable energy by 2030 — setting a timeline for the pledges it had made two years ago.
The company intends to have 100,000 electric delivery vehicles on the road by 2030, and is establishing a $100 million fund for reforestation projects in an effort to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
While Amazon’s steps to reduce emissions were broadly praised, critics, including a group of employees whose activism has highlighted the company’s climate shortcomings, say there is more to do. Most notably, they continue calling for Amazon to stop doing business with oil and gas exploration companies and to step up its advocacy for climate policies.
Still, employees were thrilled and in tears, exchanging congratulatory text messages and emails after the announcement Thursday, said Emily Cunningham, a leader of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. She said that as recently as January, company executives wouldn’t even discuss Amazon’s carbon footprint during meetings. “It’s a huge change,” she said.
More than 1,500 Amazon employees are still expected to walk out and rally at the Spheres beneath Bezos’ office at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and at other company locations in support of the student-led Global Climate Strike Friday. A United Nations climate summit begins Monday.
Cunningham expected the tenor of the walkout to be decidedly more positive, with a feeling of momentum building, in light of the news.
Bezos unveiled a new initiative called “The Climate Pledge,” asking other companies to join in the effort to transition away from fossil fuels and their associated emissions by 2040. Climate scientists have set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 to preserve a better-than-even chance of holding global average temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius, as called for in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Bezos said that the predicted impacts of climate change described five years ago were bad enough, “but what’s actually happening is dire.” He noted that Antarctic ice sheets were melting 70% faster than forecast and oceans are warming 40% faster.
Companies that take the pledge, a new initiative announced with Global Optimism, led by former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, commit to regular measurement and reporting of emissions and business changes to eliminate emissions from their operations, while using what Bezos called “credible” carbon offsets to account for remaining emissions.
Throughout Amazon’s announcement is the term “net zero carbon” — indeed, that is its goal. That means the company still expects to emit greenhouse gases from its operations, but will offset those emissions with projects elsewhere that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Bezos committed Amazon to spend $100 million on restoration and protection of forests, wetlands and peatlands globally with The Nature Conservancy, headed by former Interior Secretary (and former head of Seattle-based co-op REI) Sally Jewell.
So far, however, emission-offset programs — sometimes called carbon credits — have had a checkered record and present a host of complex questions about how they are measured and maintained in the long term, as an investigation by Pro Publica into carbon credits in the Amazon revealed earlier this year.
“The devil is always in the details,” said Nardia Haigh, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and author of a recent book on how companies can adapt to coming disruptions from climate change.
Better than offsets are direct emissions reductions, she said.
Amazon has been at work for the last three years on a science-based emissions-accounting and -reduction strategy, including guidance for how its many and varied business units can “radically reduce carbon across the company and down supply chains,” said Dara O’Rourke, a leader in that effort at the company.
“Amazon is as complex as many companies combined,” he said. “That forced us to build one of the most sophisticated carbon-accounting systems in the world.”
Bezos said Amazon delivers more than 10 billion items a year. It aims to cut back on emissions in part through use of electric vehicles. Michigan-based Rivian will build 100,000 of them for Amazon at a plant in Normal, Illinois. Amazon earlier this year invested $440 million in the company — which also received a $500 million investment from Ford in April — and says those funds will be used to accelerate production. The first vans are expected to begin deliveries in 2021 and the entire fleet deployed by 2030.
Bezos said the order exemplifies the market push that The Climate Pledge can exert.
“It will drive the economy to start to build products and services that these large companies need to meet those commitments,” he said.
Amazon will attempt to reach 80% renewable energy powering its operations by 2024, and 100% by 2040.
Bezos didn’t have a ready figure for the cost of these measures. “Often, when you decarbonize, if you’re doing it right, you can save money because you’re figuring out how not to burn fuel,” he said, adding that renewable energy projects are comparable in cost to the fossil fuels they’re replacing in some areas.
Haigh, like some other experts on corporate climate action, praised Amazon’s moves, describing them as “a really welcome break from Amazon’s previous stance, which was notable for a lack of climate change action.”
The online retailing and cloud computing giant that Bezos founded 25 years ago was late among its corporate peers to disclose its carbon footprint — nearly 7,000 other corporations worldwide had by the end of last year. Far fewer companies — 645 — have committed to time-bound, science-based emission-reduction targets, according to a tracker maintained by the nonprofit group Science Based Targets. Here again, Amazon’s name had been missing from a list that includes competitors such as Walmart and Target.
The effects of climate change have become more apparent in recent years, with strengthening hurricanes and wildfires, including in the Amazon rainforest — cut through by the river from which Bezos took the name for his company. Amazon’s lack of rigorous action seemed increasingly at odds with its position as an industrial leader and Bezos’ long-term, interplanetary view of human civilization.
Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, in 2017 posted a video of himself smashing a bottle of champagne atop a wind turbine in Texas, christening a new renewable energy project in a widely viewed public relations stunt.
In May of this year, in his capacity as head of Kent-based rocket company Blue Origin, Bezos described a vision for commercial space development in which industry goes into orbit and “Earth is zoned residential.” Later that month, employees dressed in white shirts at the company’s shareholder meeting in Seattle asked Bezos directly to address the Amazon’s plans to confront climate change. “It’s hard to find an issue that’s more important,” he replied.
Cunningham, an Amazon user experience designer as well as a leader of the employees’ climate justice group, was one of those who stood to speak to Bezos at the shareholder meeting, where a climate proposal was voted down by Amazon’s stockholders.
“I feel so inspired and overwhelmed by what we have been able to accomplish in less than a year as employees coming together and using our voices for the most important challenge of our time, the climate crisis,” Cunningham said in an interview. “I think it’s an incredible victory for us, and shows that Amazon is paying attention. It’s not enough, but it is definitely a big win for us.”
She said employees want Amazon to stop selling specialized computing services to oil and gas exploration companies through its highly profitable cloud computing business, and to use its lobbying might to advocate for climate policies — something Bezos said he would do, though he stopped short of a full embrace of the Green New Deal. He also pledged to take “a hard look” at Amazon political contributions’ funding of “active climate deniers.”
Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a research and advocacy group opposed to further fossil-fuel development, said Amazon and its cloud computing competitors, Microsoft and Google, are counteracting their own laudable efforts on climate by serving the oil and gas sector.
“A company that has actually gone out of its way to target the oil and gas sector, to make them more money, cultivate them as partners and clients – it’s hard to say they are actually doing the right thing on climate,” he said.
Asked about this Thursday, Bezos said Amazon would continue working with oil and gas companies. “We’re going to work hard for energy companies, and in our view we’re going to work very hard to make sure that as they transition that they have the best tools possible.”
Amazon’s carbon calculus is accounting for emissions related to another set of its customers: Consumers who drive to its physical locations, such as Whole Foods Markets, to shop.
Amazon said these shopping trips account for about 10% of its 2018 carbon emissions. By including that in its impact calculations, the company underscores its argument that e-commerce is inherently more efficient than the traditional model it’s replacing, and can compare itself favorably to retailers such as Walmart, the majority of whose sales are made in stores rather than online.
The company’s emissions disclosure also accounts for shipping to its warehouses and from there to its customers, electricity use, travel, packaging and Amazon-branded products.
However, emissions related to the manufacture of products sold on Amazon by third-party sellers, many based in China, are not counted, and it remains to be seen whether Amazon will put climate-related requirements on third-party sellers. Bezos said the company would use its influence to try to drive change.
And there are broader questions about whether the kind of instant-gratification consumerism Amazon has nearly perfected — and continues to accelerate — can continue in a way that’s compatible with the pace of emissions reductions scientists say are necessary to preserve a livable climate.
Bezos said faster shipping speeds can actually result in lower carbon emissions, because it requires that goods be staged closer to customers in advance. There’s not enough time to fulfill a one-day order by flying it in overnight, he said, adding that this may seem counter-intuitive.
Elizabeth Sturcken, who heads the Environmental Defense Fund’s work with corporations on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, was gratified to see Amazon’s climate ambition begin to match its commercial zeal.
“Amazon has been masterful at driving a new type and a new level of consumerism,” Sturcken said. “Those expectations and desires by people, by customers, are not going to go away now. (Amazon) has a responsibility to be a part of the solution in figuring out how you make these systems sustainable. It’s not inconceivable.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Monday, Sept. 23 to clarify that Emily Cunningham is a leader of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, not the only leader.