Big tech and big power: companies’ climate change pledges

JP Casey 17 April 2020 (Last Updated April 17th, 2020 12:12)

Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Samsung are some of the world’s largest tech companies, and organisations with some of the largest environmental footprints. We consider the environmental pledges made by these firms, and assess whether they could be effective.

Big tech and big power: companies’ climate change pledges
Apple’s ‘iPhone dismantling robot’ spearheads a recycling initiative that has seen Apple dramatically reduce its need for mining new rare earth minerals for use in its products/ Credit: Ed Uthman

Technology companies are wielding increasing influence beyond what may be considered their traditional domains. Apple, for instance, has sold close to one and a half billion iPhones over the last decade, and with increasing scrutiny over where it sources the metals and rare earth minerals required to produce these products on such a scale, the company has had to consider the environmental footprint of its actions in a manner similar to a mining company, or an offshore oil and gas firm.

The Californian tech giant is not alone in this, and as technology embeds itself deeper into the lives of people around the world, these companies will be under increased pressure to keep up production, sale and distribution of their products and services, all while under intense environmental security. In response, many of the world’s leading technology companies have made grand environmental pledges, as they aim to improve their own environmental performance, or spark wider social change with regard to carbon emissions and dangerous pollution, as the 2050 climate deadline looms ever larger. We consider the pledges made by four of these companies, and assess whether they could be as effective as the firms hope.

Microsoft’s $1bn carbon-negative pledge

Microsoft is leading the way as tech companies look to improve their environmental record, going beyond pledges to reach carbon neutrality, and instead targeting carbon negativity. The company aims to be removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it is producing by 2030, an ambitious plan that could see pollution reduced, not merely stifled, should it be realised.

The company’s plans include the creation of a $1bn fund to develop carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies, a significant investment that could go a long way to reaching this 2030 target. Microsoft has also pledged to make a number of logistical and institutional changes to improve efficiency at its operations, hopefully leading to the kind of incremental change that can be achieved without such a vast capital investment. By 2025, all of the company’s assets will be powered by renewable energy, and on-site vehicles will all be electrified by 2030.

These goals also critically include scope three emissions, those produced by Microsoft’s partners across its supply chain, which are often the most industrially intense, and thus pollution heavy; Microsoft notes that scope three emissions can be greater than the sum of scope one and two emissions, those directly produced by the company in question. There is an element of plausible deniability to scope three emissions, and companies have been known to absolve themselves of responsibility for them, claiming they cannot be held responsible for the actions of their partners, which can obscure the true environmental cost of a company’s actions. By tackling these emissions head on, Microsoft could help set a new standard for accountability in the tech sector.

Amazon aiming for carbon neutrality by 2040

While smaller in scale than Microsoft’s pledges, Amazon’s targets cover a longer period, with the company aiming to become carbon-neutral by 2040. Amazon has announced plans to be wholly reliant on renewable power for its energy by 2030, up from 40% today, and its AWS cloud is already 3.6 times more efficient than the average cloud data server in the US, while producing an environmental footprint that is 88% lower.

Amazon is also targeting a number of industries and practices crucial to its core business, aiming to change the fundamental processes upon which the company is built. It has invested $400,000 into electric vehicle start-up Rivian, which has supplied the retailer with 100,000 electric delivery vans. The company’s Shipment Zero policy also aims to make its delivery shipments net zero by 2050, and encompasses a range of recycling and reusing policies for a number of material.: Amazon plans to open 50 recycling plants across its operations, which will recycle 7,000 tons of plastic film a year; the company also plans to recycle 250 tons of paper used in shipping labels for use in animal bedding.

Should projects like these be successful, they will demonstrate the viability of overhauling a company’s core activities, and could help introduce a cultural change for sustainability in big tech. Rather than clean practices being token gestures bolted on to an environmentally harmful framework, it could showchanges that can be incorporated wholesale into a company’s identity.

Apple targets recycling and reuse

In a similar manner to Amazon, Apple is targeting recycling as it looks to improve its environmental performance. The company’s much-publicised ‘iPhone dismantling robot’ spearheads a recycling initiative that has seen Apple dramatically reduce its need for mining new rare earth minerals for use in its products; it expects to have cut its aluminium-bearing bauxite production by 900,000 tonnes in 2019, and 29,000 tonnes of tin ore in the same year.

Apple has already achieved some success with this project in its use of paper, having sourced 100% of the wood fibres used in its packaging from recycled sources, or what it calls “responsibly managed forests” for two consecutive years.

However, these approaches lack the holistic emphasis of companies’ such as Microsoft and Amazon. In the 2018 financial year, 74% of Apple’s vast carbon dioxide production of 25.2 million metric tons was produced by its manufacturing arms, a figure that will not be diminished by redoubled efforts to recycle materials. Furthermore, while the company enthuses about the 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide it has saved through its various projects since 2011, these figures do not include the critical scope three emissions which Microsoft has taken such pains to target directly. Apple’s work in developing its recycling processes is undoubtedly positive, but as the world’s environment struggles in increasingly dramatic ways, it is unclear if this will be enough to make a significant impact.

Samsung’s reforms to operation and efficiency

Samsung is aiming to reform many of its operations and processes to improve efficiency, and reduce the volume of waste, such as carbon dioxide, produced at its operations. The company aims to cut its emissions by roughly half over a two year period, from 3.59 tons of carbon dioxide per million Korean won in 2018 to just 1.55 by the end of 2020. Similarly, it is targeting a year-on-year reduction in carbon dioxide production of seven million tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, which would see the company’s total carbon dioxide reduction reach 250 million tons since 2008.

Many of the company’s policies centre around changes to workplace culture and working habits, such as a pledge to increase reliance on video conferencing, rather than environmentally costly in-person visits around the world, part of a wider plan to tackle scope three emissions.

Samsung also plans to supplement these targets with a number of new infrastructure projects, such as the construction of a 5.5MW solar power facility on the roofs of its Chinese locations as part of a plan to rely exclusively on renewable power by the end of this year, and further plans to build solar and geothermal facilities in carparks and rooftops in its South Korean offices. This latter project is part of the nation government’s plan to increase the country’s reliance on renewable power to 35% by 2040, and the alignment of private and state interests helps highlight the significance of these commitments.