Is Amazon a Climate Leader?

Is Amazon a Climate Leader?

Amazon’s 2021 Sustainability Report highlights just how complicated it can be to measure corporate net-zero promises. In 2019, under former CEO Jeff Bezos, the company launched The Climate Pledge initiative, galvanizing dozens of companies to move towards net zero by mid-century. In its own plans to reach net zero by 2040, the company has become the world’s largest buyer of clean energy commercial delivery trucks.

Amazon News: The Climate Pledge, October 31, 2019.

TED: Amazon's climate pledge to be net-zero by 2040 | Dave Clark and Kara Hurst, October 19, 2020.

While reports find that Amazon’s emissions have risen by 18% compared to 2020, and 40% compared to 2019, the company also experienced massive growth in a vastly new consumer landscape, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19. Increased online shopping and lack of access to brick-and-mortar stores and public spaces reduced consumers’ immediate carbon footprints. But emissions from goods sold and delivered didn’t disappear; they must be attributed to someone. In this new consumer model, where 46% of shoppers use delivery more now than before the pandemic began, suppliers are shouldering a greater majority of responsibility for environmental impacts.

Still, Amazon’s failure to adequately reduce emissions in line with the 1.5-degree Celsius goal has earned the company an "F” grade on a climate progress scorecard put forth by As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy nonprofit.

Oceana: Amazon's enormous and rapidly growing plastic pollution problem, December 21, 2021.

Why This Matters

Many of the biggest US corporations are failing to reach, let alone set, ambitious climate targets. Pledges are often fulfilled through the purchase of carbon offsets, meant to "cancel out” emissions. However, offsets can also be a form of greenwashing that gives the consumer-facing appearance of net-zero progress while businesses pollute through other various backchannels.

Limiting warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius requires companies to cut emissions directly -- they just need outside incentives to do so. "The change that we require from corporates in the situation that we’re in right now will not come from consumers or shareholders,” Eduardo Posada, an analyst from the NewClimate Institute, told Grist. "We need watchdog initiatives and regulators to hold them to account.”

NBC: Are Major Companies Living Up To Their Net-Zero Pledges To Combat Climate Change?, February 10, 2022.

Thee Project: Major Companies Slammed Over Greenwashing Over Failed Net-Zero Pledges, February 9, 2022.

DW: Banks increase funding for fossil fuels despite 'net-zero’ pledges, February 15, 2022.

Consumers Drive Emissions, Too

According to Amazon’s report, the jump in emissions reflects the growth and increased consumer demand during the pandemic, stating that "the focus should not be solely on a company’s carbon footprint in terms of absolute carbon emissions, but also on whether it’s lowering its carbon intensity.”

Due to direct sustainability initiatives that include a recent shift to electric delivery vans, the company slightly reduced its "carbon intensity,” meaning the emissions produced for every dollar earned. But the e-comm giant’s reach extends far beyond direct operations. Reporting neglects one major piece of the puzzle: Scope 3 emissions, or emissions associated with outside vendors and the products these vendors produce. When it comes to the climate, emissions are emissions, and like other large multinational supply chain companies, Amazon’s are dramatically under-reflected.

The Sustainability Speaker: Corporate Carbon Footprint | Understanding Scope 1, 2 and 3 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions, April 5, 2021.

​​Our Eden: Your Bank is Funding Climate Change, November 13, 2021.

DW: Why carbon offsets are worse than you think, January 21, 2022.