Big companies often tout the good they’re doing for the planet. Reducing energy use, buying green energy, things like that. But they often reveal much less about the harm they do.
Like Amazon. With its data centers, warehouses and delivery trucks, the computing and retail giant has grown into one of the nation’s biggest users of energy.
“The company burns enormous amounts of fossil fuels,” Rebecca Deutsch of the climate-action group 350 Seattle said at a protest outside Amazon’s annual shareholders meeting in May in Seattle. “As a company with an oversized footprint, Amazon has to take meaningful action to curb the greenhouse gases it’s dumping into our atmosphere.”
Amazon claims that its cloud computing and e-commerce are less polluting than the activities they’re rapidly replacing. Without more transparency from the secretive corporation, those claims are difficult to verify.
The nonprofit CDP, formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project, grades companies on how well they disclose and reduce their carbon emissions. Amazon received an “F” last year for not responding to CDP, which represents institutional investors worth $100 trillion.
Amazon declined repeated KUOW interview requests.
“It’s falling far behind other tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google,” Deutsch said. “Amazon needs to be a leader to curb climate change. It needs to put its efforts where its press releases are.”
Amazon publicity materials say the energy-hungry data centers of its web services division got at least 40 percent of their power from renewable energy by December 2016.
Activists scoff at that claim: A Greenpeace USA report in January found that nuclear power accounted for most of the company’s tally of supposedly renewable energy.
"Their promise to power their data centers with 100% renewables appears to have no date attached (which makes it nearly meaningless), as opposed to Google's promise of this year," Emily Johnston of 350 Seattle said in an email.
Google expects to get all of its power from renewable, non-nuclear sources this year. Microsoft says it will get half its power from wind, solar and hydropower by next year.
Amazon has signed contracts for more than 1 million megawatts of wind and solar power, second only to Google, according to a recent report by CDP and other nonprofits.
But Amazon doesn’t reveal how much dirty energy it buys as its business rapidly grows or what kind of impacts its business has.
The four next-largest companies based in Washington state have all revealed their emissions and approaches to reducing them to CDP.
Amazon has joined other tech giants in urging the federal government to support President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement. Greenpeace USA praised the company for its national advocacy for the Clean Power Plan and clean-energy tax credits and its local advocacy for wind power in Ohio and Virginia, where Amazon has large data centers.
“We remain committed to putting our scale and inventive culture to work in ways that are good for the environment and our customers,” Amazon spokesperson Melanie Janin said in an email.
Yet Amazon’s lack of transparency has protesters up in arms.
The Greenpeace USA report concluded, given what information was available, that the percentage of clean energy used by Amazon Web Services has fallen sharply as demand for its computing power keeps growing.
“The company’s near doubling of data center capacity in Virginia far outstripped the addition of renewable energy supply,” it found. “Customers of AWS should remain concerned the company’s rapid expansion will continue to increase the demand for electricity from coal and other polluting sources.”
Across the street from Amazon’s shareholders meeting, security guards, Amazon Prime Air delivery pilots and environmentalists decried various Amazon practices.
“We’re calling on Amazon to be responsible and begin to act now,” SEIU Local 6 organizer Patience Malaba told the crowd about Amazon’s fossil fuel use.
“When is the time?” she asked.
“Now!” came the reply.
The chants could not be heard inside the shareholders meeting, where Amazon wouldn’t allow cameras or recorders and where journalists were accompanied by company escorts.
Shareholders there heard about the year’s financial successes — revenues shot up 27 percent to $136 billion — and considered three shareholder proposals. One would have tied executive pay at Amazon to how well the company reduces its impacts on the planet. It was voted down decisively: 95 percent to 5 percent.
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