Big Tech & the Climate

Mural in Spain, picture taken by Cathleen in 2014.

Attention of environmental, social, and governance issues is at an all time high. With this must come attention for the private sector’s responsibility. Corporate actors must acknowledge their impact and mitigate any negative consequences. And we are seeing more resources and awareness directed in this direction, too — both in terms of corporate reporting and regulatory efforts.

That said, reading lots of ambitious climate pledges and improvement targets, I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a closer look at the environmental reports published by the biggest global tech players. The declared goal is pretty much always a version of “net zero” or keeping global heating below 1.5°C. The only way to get there: reduce emissions.

This means my main question of interest is: Are these companies effectively reducing the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions they are responsible for?

The short answer

2021 amount of MmtCO2e | change YoY
Alibaba ?
Amazon ?
Apple 22.5 | 🟡↔️
Facebook 5.7 | 🛑↗️
Google 11.37 | 🛑↗️
Microsoft 14.1 | 🛑↗️
Mozilla ?
Netflix 1.54 | 🛑↗️
Tencent 5.1 | 🛑↗️

Apple

For 2021, Apple reports 22.5 million metric tons of CO2e (net) + 0.7 million emissions abated through offsets. This is the same net emissions as in 2020 and slightly behind Apple’s projected reduction pathway.

70% of those come from product manufacturing, 22% from product use and 8% from product transport. The importance of supply chains (scope 3 emissions) couldn’t be any clearer.

And yes, supply chain efforts are challenging, certainly for manufacturers and hardware providers (think rare earths, working conditions, human rights implications, delivery routes, packagaing etc etc). This is true for Apple as well. Their emphasis on highlighting challenges and progress, even if it may seem incremental is encouraging. Apple now lists 213 suppliers in their renewable energy alliance. Up from 109 suppliers the previous year.

New positive: Siri, iMessages, and iCloud are specifically called out this time. While the emphasis is on the fact that Apple procures 100% renewable energy for its data centres (rather than the impact these products have on the end user side), this is a welcome improvement in the reporting. Note: I’ve called out the lack of reporting on this in the past.

Personally, I also found the details on water use at corporate facilities highly interesting: of the 1407 Mgal used in 2021, 89% were freshwater resources and 5% of those came from groundwater. Knwoing the decreasing groundwater levels and a general, global water scarcity, it is good to see attention directed towards this. And it indicates where future improvements need to go.

One thing that still requires more attention in relation to Apple’s environmental effort are their policy/lobbying efforts: Which business associations are they a member of, which do they support financially, and what do these groups lobby for?

If anyone knows anyone who has looked into this, or a group that keeps track, please share!

Netflix

Netflix reports 1.54 million CO2e in 2021, up from 1.05 million in 2020 due to a higher production schedule post-pandemic.

The concluding remark of their press release states: We made progress, but we still have a long way to go. Which is obviously true.

While it is good to see Netflix looking at their production impact, incl. innovative power setups using hydrogen, significant flaws remain in the transparency of a) the data they report and b) the impact when it comes to the use of their product.

More clearly: Netflix — an online streaming platform does not account for their emissions of online streaming.

I’ve captured some of my criticism in previous posts. In a nutshell, if complete, we’d likely see a carbon footprint 50x higher than Netflix currently accounts for. This is especially puzzling/frustrating, given that Netflix secured validation from the Sciene Based Target Initiative — however, only accounting for scope 1 and 2, i.e. excluding value chain impact.

For now, Netflix merely points to “broadened research on the carbon footprint of video streaming”. Good to research, better to account with broad methodology and improve over time.

Amazon

If you are curious whether Amazon has made any progress on its environmental sustainability efforts, especially those of you that remember their rather ambitious Climate Pledge:

Well, so am I. But Amazon has not yet published an update for the fiscal year 2021.

Their latest report covers 2020 when they accounted for 60.64 million mtCO2e, which was a 19% increase in emissions since 2019 .

In terms of transparency — there is ample room for improvement. Scope 3 emissions are divided into 4 sections and one has to dig into the third party verification letter to figure out that this spans 7 out of 15 categories of the GHG Protocol.

Tencent

2021 marks the first year that Tencent has published a climate roadmap (in English). Here, they account for 5.111 million mtCO2e with 53.7% in scope 3 emissions. A major increase, compared to 2020, where Tencent reported on roughly 0.9 million mtCO2e, though only for scope 1 and 2.

The carbon neutrality roadmap report, merely 3 pages long, does not share the actual GHG emissions data, hence providing limited transparency. Their latest 2022 ESG disclosure report includes more detail but no breakdown of emissions across categories, which means it’s hard to assess what is included across their value chain (scope 3) emissions.

It’ll definitely be interesting to see whether and how this may change as they start working with the SBTi and towards gaining validation.

Alphabet (Google)

Overall reported emissions: 11.37 million mtCO2e — which is 1 million mtCO2e more than accounted in 2020.

To find these, you have to dig into the actual data overview. If you only read the abstract, you’ll merely find claims that Google has been carbon neutral for years and in the narrative part of the report, GHG emissions are often put at 0 — after “compensation”.

Read: Offsets. Offsets are a whole other conversation, with quality and impact differing tremendously.

What should also strike everyone who reads this, is the fact that this is about Google only, not Alphabet, not YouTube, not any of its other ventures. This covers a tiny fraction of what makes one of the biggest tech companies in the world.

Positively, parent company Alphabet has allocated almost 3.5 billion USD in sustainability impact bonds which means they are investing at significant scale in promising endevours around clean energy, housing, research and more.

In short, transparency needs significant improvement and emissions need to go down much, much faster.

Meta (Facebook)

Overall reported emissions in 2021: 5.7 million mtCO2e (net) including 8 out of 15 scope 3 categories, which amount to 99% of Meta’s impact. This is an increase of 0.7 million mtCO2e (net) compared to 2020.

Gross emissions were closer to 10 million and were compensated with renewable energy and — interesting detail: 700.000 gallons of “sustainable aviation fuel”, which makes one wonder how exactly staff jets across the globe.

2021 is the first year, in which Meta sets out by listing all its subsidiaries: Facebook, Instagram, Messanger, WhatsApp, workplace, Quest, Portal, novi — previously, it was utterly unclear whether these were accounted for or not. Not that there is transparency as to how these emissions are divided across platforms and/or services. I’d definitely like to see such a breakdown going forward.

Laste note: while I’m personally glad to see that Meta launched a USD 1 million Climate Misinformation Grant in partnership with the International Fact-Checking Network — this is peanuts given the scale of the challenge.

Microsoft

Microsoft’s tagline is indeed promising: From pledges to progress. The company’s pledge to be carbon negative by 2030 is still unmatched across the industry as is the consistent leadership commitment with mutliple c-level folks involved. So what does this entail?

In their report for 2021, Microsoft covers carbon, water, waste, ecosystems, data centres, devices. As well as a whole slate of climate investments.

Honestly, all of their commitments and efforts point towards a sustainability model student. And in terms of transparency, Microsoft shares GHG emissions data across all scopes. Plus: they even include a breakdown across various greenhouse gases and regions.

But: Instead of reducing their emissions, Microsoft reports app. 14.1 million mtCO2e for 2021–2.5 million more than the previous year.

Interestingly, Microsoft includes a list of “policy and advocacy efforts” (US, Europe mainly) in Appendix E with dates and descriptions of the purpose. I can only imagine that this is in response to previous criticism that the company’s lobbying efforts might well go counter their official climate pledges.

I’m personally quite intrigued to read their systems change approach, incl. developing tests that predict electricity needs before deploying or training new AI models and gaming environments to raise awareness around planetary issues, as well as lots of additional innovation incentives. The “What’s next?” section (p.42) includes this passage: “individual consumers will have the ability to choose among competing products based on relative carbon emissions…” This shifts the focus back to consumer power — which is great to see/read!

Second But: What neither progress report nor climate pledge cover are Microsoft’s contracts, such as their AI and cloud services being used for exploring future oil fields.

This has been covered in a number of articles. Still, I lack insight into the details of these contracts but I’d sure love to know the scope and details of their complicity (remember the c-level attention?). If any of you know more, please share!

Alibaba

Alibaba is certainly a major tech player, however when it comes to their environmental report my analysis is short: The last update has been published in 2018 (as far as I can tell from their English page).

It includes no GHG emissions data, hence little (to no) transparency.

Mozilla

Unfortunately, my former employer has not published their GHG emissions data since the one I was responsible for in 2020.

Back then, Mozilla accounted for app. 800.000 mtCO2e, with 98% of these stemming from their core product Firefox.

While I know that employee engagement and concern about environmental issues remain high, the pressure doesn’t seem high enough to continue transparent ESG reporting. Here’s to hoping that the sustainability programme will regain its traction in 2022.

I shared a series of Twitter threads on this earlier this month, if you’d like to engage — and if there are other environmental reports you’d like me to assess, please ping me:

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Cathleen Berger

Cathleen Berger

Strategy expert, focusing in intersection of technology, human rights, global governance, and sustianability