Amazon Has a Fundamental Climate Change Problem
The e-commerce giant moves on global warming, but its business model is hard to square with the climate crisis.
Jeff Bezos’ recent announcement that Amazon is pledging to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord and achieve annual “net zero” carbon emissions by 2040 looks, on its face, like a victory for climate change activists.
The news broke on the eve of what’s being billed as “the biggest day in climate action history” — a global climate strike that thousands of Amazon employees are participating in. The organizing group coordinating Amazon employee activism, the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) immediately took credit for the company announcement, calling it “a huge win” for Amazon workers.
As veteran climate activist Bill McKibben told OneZero, “that’s why people organize, to get reactions like this. This crew inside Amazon are heroes.” In a separate tweet, McKibben called the Amazon pledge, which includes putting 100,000 electric delivery trucks on the streets and reaching 80% renewable energy for all its services by 2030 and 100% by 2040, “pretty significant climate actions.”
Is Amazon’s most vaunted attribute — extreme convenience at super low prices — at all compatible with going green?
There’s certainly more to be done: The AECJ is calling for Amazon to stop deploying cloud-based AWS tools specifically designed for oil and gas companies (a demand that Bezos has explicitly rejected) and to cease funding climate denialism (which Bezos has said Amazon will take a “hard look” at).
But there’s an even more fundamental question at stake: Is Amazon’s most vaunted attribute — extreme convenience at super low prices — at all compatible with going green?
Numerous reports indicate that there is an environmental cost to expedited shipping, Amazon’s bread and butter. Same-day shipping ends up putting more delivery trucks on the road without allowing for their efficient management. As UPS reported in a sustainability study it released in 2017, “more package volume means more miles and emissions.”
A related problem is that extreme convenience inevitably encourages consumers to buy more products. That means more cardboard that doesn’t get recycled and more plastic packaging materials that end up in landfills. Thus the existential quandary: Amazon’s profitability is built on satisfying an addiction to instant gratification.
“The more we consume, the more resources overall we require.”
Miguel Jaller, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis and the co-director of the school’s Sustainable Freight Research Center, told OneZero that Amazon’s actions were “commendable. Going with the 100,000 EVs and increasing the renewable energy sources is very important to mitigate the impacts of their activity.”
But Jaller also noted that Amazon’s ongoing efforts to constantly reduce costs and increase inefficiency is bound to increase consumer demand. “Overall, the more efficient the system becomes, the more we will consume. … It doesn’t matter what vehicles we use or how efficient the companies are. The more we consume, the more resources overall we require.”
Asking Amazon to be actively less efficient in its logistics management might be a bridge too far, even for the most dedicated climate activists. The long-term solution is probably a carbon tax baked into every service or product, whether provided by Amazon or any other company. If we paid the true cost for the toll that convenience takes on the planet, we might find same-day delivery a little less, uh, convenient. But since a carbon price would inevitably make a services like Amazon Prime more expensive to provide, it’s hard to see Bezos unilaterally taking that kind of step.
It’s good to hear Bezos acknowledge that current climate developments are considerably more “dire” than predictions made by climate scientists as recently as five years ago. But it’s still not enough, for Amazon or society at large. As individuals, we need to think about whether we really need those new underpants delivered by drone two hours after we click the “buy” button. As a society, we need to exert the kind of sustained political pressure that results in climate solutions that apply to every corporation and not those just trying to get ahead of a little bad press.