Big Tech & the Climate

Are global tech companies actually reducing their GHG emissions?

Mural in Spain, picture taken by Cathleen in 2014.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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Cathleen Berger

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