Can Amazon really have a low-carbon future?

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Can Amazon really have a low-carbon future?

Danny Chivers writes about the big problems of ‘net-zero’ targets.


Amazon for the Amazon? Founder Jeff Bezos at his company’s head office in Seattle, USA. TED S WARREN/AP

The big online sales company, Amazon, has a carbon footprint of over 50 million tonnes of CO2. That’s about the same as the emissions of New York City.

But in 2019, Amazon said it would go ‘net-zero’ by 2040, ten years before 2050 in the 2015 Paris Agreement. So, is this big company now a climate hero?

Some of the company’s climate promises look positive – building solar farms and buying 100,000 new electric vehicles. But an important part Amazon’s planning looks less likely - its $100-million ‘Right Now Climate Fund’. It uses ‘natural solutions’ to take carbon from the air and ‘offset’ or balance its carbon emissions.

In 2020, Amazon said it would spend $10 million of this money on US forest projects. They will reward landowners in Appalachia for cutting down fewer trees and allowing trees to grow closer together and so store more carbon. Amazon says this will save 18.5 million tonnes of CO2 between now and 2031.

Experts are not happy with these figures. The figures don’t include the fact that demand for wood will likely increase elsewhere. There are also doubts about how to measure the success of the plan as any impacts would take place over many years.

These are common problems for any ‘natural’ methods for absorbing carbon. It’s true that the expansion of forests, wetlands, and grasslands will be very important to avoid the worst climate impacts. But trying to measure how much carbon is saved exactly by a project is very difficult and may give unclear results. It seems that Amazon is planning to use the figures to say that it is saving up to 20 per cent of its emissions.

Net-zero = not zero?

So Amazon will use these ‘carbon savings’ because they’ve promised to reach ‘net-zero’ emissions. This means they plan to show that they are ‘absorbing’ as much greenhouse gas as they’re emitting. The UN says that by late 2020 over 1,700 big organizations had net-zero targets with 22 countries and regions including the European Union, UK, and Japan.

The idea of net-zero by 2050 came out of the 2015 Paris Agreement. It’s an important target, and we need it urgently to reach ‘net negative’ emissions. This is 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 the level of the planet. But the two tasks of reducing emissions and restoring nature need very different solutions, in very different places. So putting these two against each other within individual countries or businesses is harder to justify. And, as dishonest companies and governments have found, it makes it possible to show very unclear figures.

A simple carbon reduction target from Amazon – for example, a 50 per cent cut by 2030 – would be much easier to measure. But it announced a ‘net-zero by 2040’ target, and this means if necessary and they do not reach the target, they can add forestry projects, which are impossible to measure. Oil companies like BP and Equinor are also using these unclear promises to say they can reach net-zero while still extracting fossil fuels.

Whose carbon?

Another problem: why would we give the big tech and oil companies responsibility for the world’s forests? We know that local action – particularly by indigenous peoples – is the best way to save forests. If we allow companies to control ‘natural solutions’ and to offset a lot of their emissions, it is the worst situation.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)