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caption: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos tours the Amazon Spheres greenhouse in 2018. His company plans to disclose its contribution to the greenhouse effect in 2019.
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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos tours the Amazon Spheres greenhouse in 2018. His company plans to disclose its contribution to the greenhouse effect in 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Amazon will reveal its carbon footprint ... a decade after competitors

Amazon says it will reduce the carbon footprint of the trucks, vans and planes that deliver its smiley-faced boxes to consumers around the world.

The tech giant’s brief announcement did not disclose how it plans to do that, and a spokesperson, as usual for the secretive company, declined to answer questions.

Amazon did say it will reveal something it has kept secret for many years: the impact it has on the world’s climate.

Unlike many big tech firms and shipping companies, Amazon has never revealed how much carbon pollution it causes. That’s despite years of requests from investors, journalists and activists.

“Customers and investors alike are demanding greater transparency, so it’s a good start that Amazon is preparing to address this,” Dexter Galvin with the group CDP said by email to KUOW.

The non-profit, which represents institutional investors, grades companies on how they disclose and reduce their carbon emissions. It has asked Amazon to come clean about its carbon emissions since 2004.

The company has never responded.

“It is currently the only company out of the top 10 global retailers to refuse to disclose through CDP,” Galvin said.

“It’s great to see Amazon is finally stepping into the game,” climate activist Rebecca Deutsch with 350 Seattle said. “All other large logistics companies have already been making commitments to reduce their pollution and invest in fossil-fuel free transportation.”

“With improvements in electric vehicles, aviation biofuels, reusable packaging, and renewable energy, for the first time we can now see a path to net zero carbon delivery of shipments to customers,” Amazon senior vice president Dave Clark said on the company’s Day One blog. “We are setting an ambitious goal for ourselves to reach 50 percent of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030.”

Cutting emissions by about half by 2030, and eliminating them by 2050, is what climate scientists say is needed globally to keep the world from overheating by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

If Amazon’s retail sales keep growing, its total shipping emissions would not fall by half under the goal it announced Monday.

In 2017, Amazon announced a companywide goal of using only non-polluting energy, but it did not put any deadline on that goal.

Redmond-based tech giant Microsoft, which began disclosing its carbon emissions in 2005, has a goal of reducing its total carbon emissions 75 percent by 2030. Microsoft says it is on target to get 60 percent of its energy from green sources a year from now.

'A red flag'

Amazon has already put money into electric trucks.

Rivian, a Michigan startup that makes electric trucks and SUVs, announced on Friday that Amazon has invested as much as $700 million in it. And Amazon’s federal lobbying disclosure filings reveal the company has been urging Congress to provide more tax breaks for buyers of electric vehicles.

Yet Amazon’s use of the term “net zero” suggests that the company is looking at some mix of cleaning up its own operations and paying others to reduce or absorb pollution elsewhere, through mechanisms such as carbon offsets.

Deutsch called the “net zero” term a red flag. “The problem with paying someone else to reduce pollution elsewhere is that it’s doing nothing to actually reduce the pollution along the shipping routes where the diesel vans and trucks are traveling,” Deutsch said.

That can leave poor communities, often communities of color, near highways and ports still breathing unhealthy amounts of diesel exhaust.

Category-defying Amazon, of course, is more than just a retailer or logistics company. The data centers behind its cloud-computing division, Amazon Web Services, also make Amazon one of America’s biggest consumers of electricity and biggest carbon polluters.

Amazon publicizes its green-energy purchases, but according to internal company documents obtained by KUOW in 2017, those purchases haven’t kept up with the company’s rapid growth. Those documents showed Amazon Web Services carbon emissions doubling in just three years.

Amazon workers have been organizing internally to push their employer to do better by the climate. “Climate change is something that needs to be addressed at a company-wide level,” Amazon employee Eliza Pan said.

She and 27 other stock-owning employees introduced a shareholder resolution in December calling on the company to address its climate impacts.

“We started as a group of 28 cofilers,” Pan said. “And now, just about two months later, we have huge employee support, across the company, interested in the climate impacts of our operations.”

“It’s incredible,” she said.

Pan said the employees were really excited about their employer’s carbon announcement, “especially the part about sharing our carbon footprint.”

Clark said Amazon would disclose that information later this year.