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Can Amazon really deliver a low-carbon future?

Climate justice
Amazon for the Amazon? Founder Jeff Bezos at his firm's HQ in Seattle. TED S WARREN/AP

Here’s a fun fact: online sales giant Amazon has a carbon footprint of over 50 million tonnes of CO2. That’s roughly equivalent to the emissions of the whole of New York City.

But wait – back in 2019, Amazon pledged to go ‘net-zero’ by 2040, a full ten years before the 2050 in the 2015 climate deal – known as the Paris Agreement. So, is this corporate behemoth now a climate hero?

Some of the company’s climate pledges look positive – building solar farms to power its operations, and purchasing 100,000 new electric vehicles. However, a key part of Amazon’s strategy looks less convincing: its $100-million ‘Right Now Climate Fund’, which uses ‘nature-based solutions’ to pull carbon from the air and ‘offset’ its carbon emissions.

In 2020, Amazon announced that $10 million of this fund would be spent on US forestry projects. Landowners in Appalachia are rewarded for reducing harvesting in their woodlands, allowing trees to grow more densely and thus store more carbon. Amazon claims this will save 18.5 million tonnes of CO2 between now and 2031.

Experts are already contesting these figures. For starters, they don’t fully take account of ‘leakage’ – the fact that demand for lumber will likely increase elsewhere. There are also doubts around how the scheme will be monitored – any impacts would take place over many years and be very hard to measure.

These are common problems for any ‘nature-based’ methods for absorbing carbon. It’s true that the expansion of forests, wetlands and grasslands worldwide will be vital to avoid the worst climate impacts – but any attempt to measure the exact amount of carbon saved by any specific project will be approximate at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. The scale of its investments suggests that Amazon may plan to use these kinds of numbers to claim up to 20 per cent of its emissions will be ‘cancelled out’.

Net-zero = not zero?

Amazon can use these forestry ‘carbon savings’ in its calculations because they’ve pledged to reach ‘net-zero’ emissions – in other words, they plan to show that, on balance, they are ‘absorbing’ as much greenhouse gas as they’re emitting. According to the UN, by late 2020, over 1,700 major organizations had set net-zero targets along with 22 countries and regions including the European Union, UK and Japan.

The concept of net-zero took shape as a 2050 milestone in the 2015 Paris Agreement. It’s an important marker, and one we need to urgently pass to reach ‘net negative’ emissions – the point where nature is absorbing more carbon than human society is emitting and global heating may begin to slow.

The target makes sense on a planetary level. But the twin tasks of reducing emissions and restoring nature need very different solutions, in very different places. So setting these two things against each other within individual countries or businesses is harder to justify, and – as unscrupulous companies and governments have found – opens the door to all kinds of loopholes.

If Amazon had set a straightforward carbon reduction target – say, a 50 per cent cut by 2030 – it would be much easier to hold it to account. Instead, it chose to announce a ‘net-zero by 2040’ target, safe in the knowledge that any shortfall can be plugged with nice-sounding (but near impossible to measure) forestry projects. Oil companies like BP and Equinor are also using vague promises of unproven carbon capture technology to claim they can reach net-zero while still extracting fossil fuels.

Whose carbon?

Another caveat: why on Earth would we give tech giants and oil companies responsibility for the world’s forests? We know that locally controlled solutions – particularly those led by indigenous peoples – are the best at preserving and restoring forests and wildlands. Allowing corporations to control ‘natural solutions’ instead, while writing off large chunks of their emissions, is the worst of all worlds.


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