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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Are Big Tech’s Climate Pledges Too Ambitious?

  • Big Tech has been at the forefront of the corporate green energy push for years, and now it’s doubling down on its ambitious carbon goals.
  • Google and Microsoft have announced that all of their data centers will be 100% carbon-free by 2030.
  • Some have criticized the lofty pledges as a means of appeasing shareholders, but new policies could make the transition inevitable, whether the companies are ready or not.

Google aims to have carbon-free data centers by 2030, but are these grandiose corporate carbon-cutting policies by major corporations all they’re made out to be? With a long history of greenwashing across several of these companies, how likely is it for them to achieve their climate goals over the coming decades?  Google plans to use 100 percent carbon-free energy in its data centers by 2030. This would be a huge feat considering it used  15.5 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2020. The company expects to buy this clean energy from the grid, improving efficiency across its operations to support the aim. 

But this is just the latest in a long line of companies making ambitious carbon-cutting pledges, alongside aims by national governments to reduce their carbon footprints in line with climate change policies. Companies are feeling increasing pressure both from new policies coming into force across several countries by the end of the decade and from their consumers, who now expect major corporations to improve their environmental practices. 

In 2021, Microsoft also made a pledge to make its data centers carbon-free by 2030. Chief environmental officer at Microsoft Lucas Joppa said “Moving forward we will be innovating our energy purchasing contracting to help bring more zero-carbon energy onto the grid and move more high carbon intensity energy off the grid, helping to rebalance the carbon intensity of any grid on which we operate.”

Earlier that year, 50 major corporations announced plans to become carbon-neutral by 2040, including Amazon, Walmart, General Motors, and FedEx. Companies are aiming high, wanting to achieve net-zero a decade or more earlier than stipulated in the Paris Agreement. FedEx’s chief sustainability officer, Mitch Jackson, stated “We talk to our customers pretty much each and every day about these issues.” And “Sustainability is not a discretionary thing anymore. I think it’s really become central to a lot of the considerations in thinking,” he said. 

Related: Russia’s War Highlights The Dangers Of Resource-Dependence

This begs the question, are major companies making these plans because of mounting public pressure, regardless of whether they’re ready to do so? Of course, it’s a step in the right direction, with many big corporations acting faster on their climate change targets. But is much of this simply greenwashing, hoping that they’ll achieve these ambitious targets with no real understanding of how to do so? 

As experts aptly remind these corporations, 2050 is closer than it appears, and many are aiming for even earlier. Studies across several major companies show that many are still on track to go beyond their “carbon budgets” – the total level of emissions they can release while keeping on track for 1.5C of warming  – over the next six years.  

Many companies worldwide continue to fail to disclose their environmental impact and climate change actions transparently, making tracking progress extremely difficult. In addition, while many companies have made ambitious, sweeping climate targets, many do not have interim targets. Without these, it is difficult to measure progress, and several are likely to fail unless they establish clear guidelines for climate progress over the coming decades. Many seem to be adopting a wait-and-see approach, intending to meet these carbon-cutting goals but without any clear strategy to do so. 

Climate pledges from major companies repeatedly fall short, according to environmental groups. In February, an analysis of 25 of the world’s largest companies, by Carbon Market Watch, showed that they avoid meaningful and immediate greenhouse gas emissions cuts. Many of these companies are using false or misleading carbon-cutting announcements. The report shows many of the top 25 are exaggerating their climate action through “greenwashing tricks, using loopholes and omitting data.”

While some are indeed aiming to dramatically cut their emissions by a set date, it does not mean they are taking meaningful actions to reduce their CO2 at present. By addressing climate change, companies keep their customers happy. But this may actually be a way of putting environmental action on the backburner while appeasing their consumer’s expectations. 

One promising development is that 338 large companies with science-based pledges decreased their combined emissions by 25 percent between 2015 and 2019, according to an SBTi analysis. Oslo-based climate analyst Ketan Joshi explains “companies are increasingly starting to understand that they’re losing their grip on the public relations hit of announcing a climate ambition and then doing nothing about it.” 

So, are the ambitious climate targets being announced by major corporations all just talk? While some are taking significant steps to address their downfalls and cut carbon emissions, others seem to be leaving it for a later day. Without clear strategies to meet interim climate targets before D-day, many companies are likely to fall short of their climate pledges. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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