Sustaining ‘sustainability’ is a struggle for Amazon

Amazon's total carbon footprint is 71.54 million metric tonnes, which is 40% higher than the tech giant's carbon pollution in 2019.
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Amazon’s 2021 sustainability report ‘Delivering Progress Everyday’ is out, and so are the tech giant’s carbon footprint statistics. At a time when large corporations are pledging to reduce their carbon footprint, the report reveals Amazon’s carbon emissions have grown by 18% in 2021, when compared to the previous year. 

According to the report, Amazon’s total carbon footprint is 71.54 million metric tonnes, which is 40% higher than the tech giant’s carbon pollution in 2019 — the year Amazon began sharing its carbon footprint.

What’s so shocking?

Over the past few years, Amazon has been on a decarbonisation drive as one of the world’s leading corporations that can create big impacts. In 2019, Jeff Bezos, the present chairman and then CEO of Amazon, had committed to fighting climate change through The Climate Pledge that spoke of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. While announcing the Pledge, Bezos pledged that Amazon would measure and report carbon emissions regularly and also implement several decarbonisation strategies. 

Amazon is championing decarb strategies

Amazon has incorporated decarbonisation strategies across all areas of its business — delivery and transportation logistics, physical stores, grocery, manufacturing, and cloud computing services. The company has invested in AWS-designed chips and the AWS Nitro System to improve power efficiency. AWS-designed Graviton3 is their most power-efficient general-purpose processor. Graviton3-based Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances consume up to 60% less energy for the same performance than non-Graviton EC2 instances. Moreover, AWS has also worked with vendors to optimise the airflow performance and longevity of the cooling medium used in their data centers. The new medium can potentially reduce the energy use of the cooling equipment by 20%. 

The company has deployed technical solutions like zero-emissions vehicles and low-carbon fuels to decarbonise transportation. It uses electric delivery vehicles and micro-mobility technologies like cargo bikes and bicycles for shorter-distance delivery on last-mile routes. In 2021, Amazon rolled out the first batch of custom electric delivery from Rivian. As far as middle-mile and long-distance transportation is concerned, Amazon has started deploying battery EV trucks vehicles that use alternative fuel sources, like compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks. In addition, the tech giant is investing in alternative fuels, such as sustainable aviation fuel, which reduces carbon emissions in flight up to 20% over standard aviation fuel.

At Amazon’s warehouses, a low-carbon technology by CarbonCure (a manufacturer of carbon removal and utilisation technologies) is used that enables the concrete industry to sequester carbon permanently in fresh concrete, reducing embodied carbon at new construction sites. 

Isn’t it startling then that despite such sustainable measures, carbon emissions have increased? 

There’s more to be bothered about. Amazon, unlike its competitors like Walmart or Target, takes into account the carbon emissions from products with Amazon brand labels only. This category makes up roughly 1% of total online sales. Imagine how high the carbon footprint would be had it taken into account emissions due to manufacturers and sellers directly selling on the marketplace?

What explains the increasing carbon footprint then? 

The climate pledge and decarbonisation initiatives mentioned above increase the credibility of Amazon Inc. as a responsible technology company committed to sustainability goals. However, the reported carbon emissions make one question the legitimacy of these claims.

As the pandemic broke out, people shifted online for work and non-work purposes, such as shopping. The culture of remote work became widespread as people started sharing files and attending video conferences through cloud services. The shift towards cloud computing necessitated Amazon Web Services to add multiple data centres. Data centres are energy intensive. Some of the largest data centres are packed with numerous servers and other IT devices that consume more than 100MW of electricity. According to International Energy Agency estimates, data centres account for 1% of global electricity usage. By 2025, it is set to go up to one-fifth of the world’s power supply. Data centres need power not just for running servers but for cooling them as well, and in the process, a lot of heat is generated in the environment.  

The pandemic compelled consumers to shift to online shopping. As demand for online shopping swelled, the global e-commerce giant expanded its logistics network — delivery vans, diesel trucks and planes. It also opened new warehouses to process orders. As Amazon’s business boomed in the wake of the pandemic, its carbon emissions grew. 

The report shows that the largest percentage of emissions growth came from Amazon’s capital goods category, which includes building structures, servers and other hardware, equipment and vehicles. This category accounted for 46 per cent of year-on-year growth in emissions. 

Source: Amazon’s 2021 Sustainability Report

Does that mean Amazon has failed in its climate commitments? Or is Amazon no longer committed to the idea of ‘responsible tech’? 

Kara Hurst, vice president of worldwide sustainability at Amazon writes in a blog, Amazon believes in delivering progress every day. “We are proud of the progress we’ve made, but we recognise we have more to do. Our everyday actions to deliver progress are in service of achieving long-term, systemic change that improves the well-being of people, communities, and the planet. The path to achieving some of our goals will be long and complex, but we are not deterred. At Amazon, we thrive on pushing the boundaries of what’s possible,” concludes Kara. 

The path to achieving net-zero isn’t easy. Amazon needs to invent new ways to tackle the huge challenge and, at the same time, drive down the costs of existing solutions. This isn’t a single-handed task. All stakeholders — public and private — need to collaborate to drive innovation and global policy change.

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Zinnia Banerjee
Zinnia loves writing and it is this love that has brought her to the field of tech journalism.

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