On Thursday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he was committing the world’s largest online retailer to meeting the terms of what he christened “The Climate Pledge.” Broadly outlined, signing the pledge, which Bezos hopes others will do as well, commits a company to meeting the emission reduction targets set forth in the Paris Agreement a decade early – in other words, becoming carbon neutral by 2040 – and regularly reporting its own greenhouse gas output.
Bezos also announced that he intends to power Amazon’s operations with 80 per cent renewable energy by 2024 and 100 per cent by 2030, that the company has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from the startup carmaker Rivian, and that Amazon has donated $100 million (£80 million) to a new venture created by the Nature Conservancy dedicated to reforestation.
At first glance, it’s a remarkable set of announcements, especially for a retailer whose business relies on making billions of deliveries by vehicle. But as is usually the case with such corporate pledges, it raises as many questions as it answers. Amazon, after all, has made major promises like this before – in 2014, it pledged to power all of its operations with clean energy, then idled for years around the halfway mark, announcing no new plans until employee pressure and critical reports of its progress apparently spurred it to (re)action. As Bezos notes in the press conference, Amazon is only running at 40 per cent renewable energy today, five years later.
So it’s worth spending a minute or five trying to unpack what, exactly, this pledge means, how serious it is, how feasible its goals are, what constitutes its most gaping holes, and what it means that this plan was in many ways forged by Amazon’s employees first and foremost, and Bezos second.
If Amazon is taking the pledge’s remit seriously, it could help to define the increasingly emissions-intensive sectors it already dominates. If it isn’t, it could provide a smokescreen for Amazon to continue doing business with oil companies, promoting rampant, emissions-heavy consumption, and accelerating planetary crisis for years to come – just behind an elaborate tableau of sustainability initiatives and public relations-generated goodwill.
Amazon employees made the climate pledge happen, not Bezos
The first thing that’s important to understand about Amazon’s Climate Pledge is this: The fact that there is such a pledge at all is thanks to the activism of a once-small but now growing cohort of Amazon employees who have spent the last year calmly but relentlessly pushing the company to adopt stronger climate goals.
It began last December when a handful of Amazon shareholders filed identical resolutions proposing that the company adopt a clear plan to reduce its carbon emissions. Months later, after the resolutions failed – they were vocally opposed by Bezos and the board of directors – workers formed a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AEJC) and published an open letter reiterating the call for a climate plan and asking the company to sever its ties with oil companies. Thousands of employees signed on. Last week, over a thousand employees announced their intention to join the global climate strike, walking out to, yet again, call on executive management to adopt stronger climate policy.
It could not be more clear that employee organising and direct action has influenced if not begot outright this outcome. First, Amazon floated its Shipment Zero programme, which aimed to reduce delivery emissions. That plan was vague and contained few hard targets, and was applauded for its intent but criticised for its lack of substance by AECJ members. Now, Bezos has announced discrete, timeline-pegged goals. AECJ had long asked that Bezos lay out a hard timeline for achieving 100 per cent clean power – a commitment the company made years ago but seemed to have abandoned. This week, he did. And if the plan isn’t exactly in line with what the best available science says about carbon reduction – it should, as employees note, strive to be carbon-free by 2030 – its contours are generally serious.
Organising worked. And to Amazon’s credit, in my interviews with employees involved, I have not heard any stories of retaliation over the activism. Bezos has been looking around for a worthy outlet to pump his history-defying riches into; some have suggested he use it to erect a legacy for himself as a climate hero, and maybe he’s been listening. (It’s fascinating to listen to Bezos open the press conference by talking about how climate change is actually proceeding faster than scientists once predicted – as if this is a major insight he recently gleaned himself – and to present his pledge as a corrective to this new crisis he has diagnosed for us, but such is the ego of the richer-than-God billionaire, and I digress.)
Real credit belongs to the employees.
“Jeff Bezos’ Climate Pledge,” Rebecca Sheppard, an Amazon employee and organiser with AEJC, wrote me in an email, “is perhaps one of the most direct indicators to show how powerful organising is and powerful employees speaking up can be.”
I can’t believe that just last year I was struggling with climate anxiety and guilt of playing a complicit role in the destruction of our planet. I remember being shocked that as employees we could use our stock to have a seat at the table when I first heard of AECJ. I was not shocked when I heard Jeff Bezos released his own ‘pledge’ this morning to address AECJ’s pledge outlining our walkout tomorrow morning. Change is coming and not just at Amazon. Tech employees are waking up to our ability to come together and create change.
If there is a chance that Amazon might live up to its pledge, it will likely be thanks to this internal network of engaged and activist employees. AECJ has demonstrated its members are willing to risk their reputations and livelihoods to push Amazon to improve its climate policy, and now that there are stated goals on the line, you can bet they’ll be holding the company’s feet to the fire. They’re going to need to.
Accountability is key
Historically, Amazon has arguably been the least engaged and least transparent tech company when it came to interrogating and disclosing its climate impacts. It dragged its feet in joining Google, Facebook, and Apple in moving to power its data centres with clean energy, and was for years one of the few major companies that did not make public its carbon footprint. It did finally release a number on Thursday: Amazon’s carbon footprint was 44.4 million metric tonnes in 2018. That, carbon accounting experts say, lands the company in the top 200 most-polluting firms in the world.
At the pledge announcement, Dara O’Rourke, a senior principal scientist on Amazon’s sustainability team, said that Amazon had built “one of the most sophisticated carbon accounting systems in the world” to document the company’s impact. “We had to build a system that could get the granular data but at Amazon scale,” he said. “To give teams innovation optionality and to see the overall company view.”
Clean energy researchers and activists have for years tried to gauge the extent of Amazon’s emissions. Gary Cook, a senior corporate campaigner for Greenpeace USA, told me the group “welcomes the commitment” from Amazon but was quick to add, “the company must be more transparent about how it plans to rapidly transition off of fossil fuels if it hopes to achieve this credibly.”
And now that Amazon has released a number for its footprint, Cook was not impressed. “Despite being a decade behind its peers, Amazon’s long-awaited carbon footprint was long on methodology, but scant on the reporting of any actual data,” he told me. He says that Amazon did not follow carbon reporting standards, which could make its actual emissions appear lower than they are. If we can’t trust Amazon to account for its own emissions in the first place – which is the very first bullet point of the pledge – then everything else is out the window.
Amazon’s press team, meanwhile, told me that “Amazon has partnered with the World Resources Institute (WRI), an independent, internationally respected, and science-driven organisation, to deep dive on our systems and verify our methodology.” Amazon also receives third party assurance from Bureau Veritas, the spokesperson said.
Cook isn’t having any of it. “Amazon’s failure to follow emission reporting standards is likely masking much larger emissions from electricity consumed by its power-hungry data centres,” he said, “and also allowing Amazon to overstate the level of progress toward renewable energy goals.”
100,000 electric delivery vehicles that don’t yet exist
The splashiest announcement of the day was that Amazon ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans from a startup called Rivian to replace the petroleum-powered versions that currently comprise its fleet. All 100,000 are supposed to hit the road by 2024. That is not only a lot of electric vans, it is probably an unprecedented number of electric vans.
Amazon has agreed to buy 100k electric delivery vans from Rivian. For context, FedEx's entire global network of road vehicles is 180k. And that includes heavy trucking and other services not directly comparable
FedEx Express: 85k 🚛🚚
FedEX Ground: 70k 🚛🚚 pic.twitter.com/mhnLeheldE
— Tom Randall (@tsrandall) September 19, 2019
As Tom Randall, a senior reporter for Bloomberg, pointed out, FedEx’s entire global network of road vehicles is around 180,000, including heavy trucks. And adding 100,000 electric trucks to the road in 10 years is one thing – expecting a startup that has as of yet not shipped a single electric delivery van, period – to do so, is another. That’s right, Rivian has yet to see one of its delivery vans roll off the assembly line.
“Rivian is trying to start a new auto [original equipment manufacturer] from scratch. Outside Tesla we haven’t seen many of those recently,” Shayle Kann, the managing director of Energy Impact, told me. “It takes a lot of capital and you need to have orders to support manufacturing at scale.” He and other observers are nonetheless optimistic that the order could help reinvigorate the market for electric delivery vehicles, and that this announcement is a boon to EVs in general. “I think it’s potentially a vital spark for a part of the market that has seen a relative dearth of electric models,” Kann said.
Amazon previously led a $700 million (£560 million) investment round in Rivian, and the order only further underlines its confidence in the startup. Still, it’s an unproven company, and, as Tesla has found, building quality EVs fast is hard, and the process is rife with production delays. It’s an open question whether Amazon can expect 100,000 EV trucks all from the same startup in five years; and the company wouldn’t comment on whether it would turn to other carmakers if Rivian fell short.
This @amazon 100k unit order of electric delivery vans from @Rivian is...big. It's a huge order for a company that hasn't produced a vehicle yet, and it's exactly 100x the next biggest electric delivery van order, which was FedEx ordering from Chanje https://t.co/7EQs7M6qRg
— Shayle Kann (@shaylekann) September 19, 2019
Where’s the clean energy roadmap?
One of the biggest problems with Amazon’s pledge is that it currently offers an abundance of well-designed web pages but few details regarding concrete next steps for some of its most important initiatives. For a notoriously secretive and opaque company that has been slow to meet its commitments in the past, the fact that Amazon produced nothing resembling a detailed roadmap to its 100 per cent clean energy goal, for instance, should send up red flags.
“What we’ve seen in the past from Amazon is a significant disconnect from Amazon’s environmental goals and its actions, and we continue to see this disconnect in today’s announcement,” Cook told me. “What we have seen thus far from Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s Cloud Computing division, is a massive expansion in electricity demand powered mostly by fossil fuels, with only limited efforts to drive a renewable electricity supply.”
A recent report that Cook co-authored found that the share of renewable energy Amazon used in its operations was actually shrinking; data centre construction and power usage was outpacing its deployment of clean energy projects. “Amazon is known for speed, but if Jeff Bezos wants Amazon to be a leader on climate, he needs to spell out exactly how it is going to rapidly move the company off of fossil fuels,” Cook said.
If Amazon releases more detailed blueprints about where and when it intends to install the clean energy projects that will get it from 40 per cent to full clean power, we might be able to lend this part of the pledge more credence. But as of now, the company’s track record of falling far behind its tech giant brethren in adopting clean energy at scale gives us good reason to maintain scepticism about Amazon’s ability to follow through.
Turn off the offsets
Some companies have already turned to the practice of investing in forest conservation and tree planting as a way to sequester carbon, thus offsetting their own pollution. These types of schemes are particularly popular with carbon-intensive industries like aviation, and Amazon certainly falls into the category.
But Amazon’s pledge is vague as to how much it will permit the company to lean on carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040 – an extremely important point, since research into the efficacy of offsets, and whether or not they actually work, has returned some alarming results. Propublica recently found that offsets for forest preservation may be worse than nothing at all.
Carbon offsets should not be a core part of the plan at all, really, and some of the closest scrutiny to whether Amazon is progressing towards zero emissions will have to be directed towards the quantity and quality of the offsets it purchases.
Still in bed with big oil
And that brings us to the final and perhaps largest roadblock to any attaining of true sustainability in Amazon’s Climate Pledge: Jeff Bezos says he will not stop partnering with oil companies to extract more oil, and faster, as Amazon Web Services currently does. During the press conference, a reporter asked Bezos if, since his employees have asked him to cut ties to oil and gas companies, he would be willing to do so. It was maybe the second or third question out of the gate.
Bezos’s response was frank: “No,” he said. “We’re going to work hard for energy companies. And our view is we’re going to work very hard to make sure that as they transition they have the best tools possible. To ask oil and energy companies to do this transition with bad tools is not a good idea.”
Despite all of this – despite the clean energy plans, the electric vehicle investments, the talk of achieving carbon neutrality, Jeff Bezos is unwilling to do the simplest thing of all: decline to help oil companies continue to exacerbate the climate crisis in the first place.
The reason he is unwilling to do this is simple and crass, and it’s because it would amount to a missed business opportunity. Amazon stands to make a lot of money inking oil company contracts, and to deny that revenue source would impede on the company’s bottom line in a way that the other initiatives do not. Electric delivery vans require no gas and will eventually save money – and plus, Amazon is a stakeholder in the company it is purchasing the vehicles from and will profit if the company succeeds. Same with clean energy – in some regions, it may be more expensive to purchase, say, solar power-generated electricity than the coal-fired variety, but only marginally. In plenty of markets, solar and wind are already cheaper. In the long run, clean power will pay for itself, and that’s to say nothing of the government incentives Amazon stands to reap by using.
So, when it comes to an easy, concrete step the company could make, right now, to curb carbon emissions at the expense of enriching itself with Exxon cash, Amazon refuses. I won’t even bother to entertain the notion that declining business with oil companies would somehow “deprive them of tools” for an energy transition. If Amazon truly wanted to help prevent global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – the critical tipping point – it could impose restrictions on contracts; only opt to work on systems that help diagnose leaky wells, say, and refuse to do business with companies looking to accelerate the rates of exploration, development, and production. But Amazon won’t do that – it’s in stark opposition to a profit opportunity.
“You cannot credibly commit to achieving the 1.5-degree target and still help the oil industry expand the map in search of more oil,” as Cook said.
And yet. The plan itself is an encouraging step, filled though it may be with blind spots, rampant vagueness, inflated expectations, and contradictions – because it shows that even the legendarily blinkered Bezos can be pushed to change course, and it demonstrates the power and potential of good organising in the tech sector. And Amazon is now in a position such that if it demonstrably fails to deliver on its promises, it risks incurring the wrath of its activated employee base.
But the plan’s contradictions run chasm deep, and they pose nothing less than the existential question of whether the whole of Amazon – which still runs on impulse buys, same-day delivery, energy-hogging data centres, and, yes, contracts with oil companies – itself is ultimately at all compatible with a habitable climate. If anyone is going to try to ensure that it is, it’s going to be its impassioned and activist-minded workforce, not Jeff Bezos.
“Amazon as a company asks for us to innovate, to disrupt, to think big, and to look at the numbers,” Rebecca Sheppard says. “I don’t think anyone has demonstrated these core values better than Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. I believe that Jeff Bezos sees that and that is what prompted him to shift directions this morning, but we are far from done. This is one step of many and Amazon also tells us plans mean shit if we don’t deliver results. So AECJ must stay strong and continue to grow in strength and number to deliver them.”
“And employees anywhere should see this and realise their own power,” she added. “You can get up from your desk, stand up, speak out, and organise for the change you want.”