SEATTLE — Jeff Bezos committed his company to cut all its net greenhouse-gas emissions by 2040 — a goal that would appear to put Amazon in the vanguard of corporations reducing carbon pollution ahead of the schedule scientists say is necessary to stave off the worst impacts of global climate change.
The company also announced it was ordering 100,000 electric-delivery vehicles, calling it the largest such order of its kind, and establishing a $100 million fund for reforestation projects in an effort to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The reductions described by Bezos will be an enormous challenge for a company whose main businesses are energy intensive — Amazon has fleets of trucks and jets, as well as a global network of data centers — and 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 what amounts to a wholesale repowering of the company’s infrastructure, some of which Amazon has already done: Amazon Web Services reached 50 percent renewable energy in 2018, for example.
At a news conference in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, Bezos unveiled “The Climate Pledge,” asking others to join in the effort to transition away from fossil fuels and their associated emissions a decade ahead of the 2050 target scientists say is necessary 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. The effort is in conjunction with Global Optimism, led by former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres.
Amazon expects to power all of its operations with renewable energy by 2030 — setting a timeline for pledges it had made two years ago.
The long-awaited disclosure of Amazon’s sustainability targets comes ahead of a Global Climate Strike on Friday, which , and an urgent United Nations climate summit beginning Monday.
Amazon said it is ordering the 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian, based in Plymouth, Mich., to be manufactured at a plant in Normal, Ill. 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, with the first vans expected to begin deliveries to Amazon customers in 2021 and the entire 100,000-vehicle fleet deployed by 2030.
The company will attempt to reach 80 percent renewable energy by 2024, and 100 percent by 2040.
Throughout Amazon’s announcement is the term “net zero carbon” — indeed, that is its headline goal. That means the company still expects to emit greenhouse gasses from its operations, but will offset those emissions with projects elsewhere that displace other emissions or remove carbon from the atmosphere. Amazon committed 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, emissions offsets 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.
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, 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 company’s plans to confront climate change. “It’s hard to find an issue that’s more important,” he replied.
But the online retailing and cloud computing giant he founded 25 years ago was late among its corporate peers to disclose its carbon footprint – as nearly 7,000 other corporations worldwide had by the end of last year – or to set time-bound, science-based emission reduction targets.
Criticism, including from a vocal group of employees planning to rally at the Spheres beneath Bezos office at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and at other company locations as part of the Global Climate Strike on Friday, intensified this year as the climate crisis has become more evident, with strengthening hurricanes and wildfires, including in the Amazon rainforest — cut through by the river from which Bezos took the name for his company.
It’s still unclear how much Amazon will account for emissions from the hundreds of thousands of suppliers who connect with consumers over its marketplace. The company’s emissions disclosure accounts for shipping, electricity use, travel, packaging, Amazon-branded products and customer trips to its own physical stores.
The Climate Pledge is a clear invitation to other companies to follow suit, but it remains to be seen whether Amazon will put climate-related requirements on third-party sellers, many of which are based in China.
Employees have called for Amazon to use its political influence to drive policy changes that would accelerate an economy-wide transition away from fossil fuels.
They’ve also called for the company to cut ties with some of the world’s largest polluters. Amazon, for example, still courts business with fossil fuels companies, devising and marketing special capabilities for oil and gas exploration from its AWS business.
And there are broader questions about whether the kind of instant-gratification consumerism Amazon has nearly perfected can continue in a way that’s compatible with the pace of emissions reductions scientists say are necessary to preserve a livable climate.