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The Tricky Math in Amazon's Climate Report

Amazon latest sustainability report shows how big corporations can use slippery language to disguise lack of progress on climate.

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Photo: Patrick Pleul (AP)

Amazon really, really wants you to think it’s trying on climate.

The company released its 2021 sustainability report this week, the third year in a row that it has logged its progress since committing to a net zero by 2040 goal in 2019. But hidden among the slick photos of wind turbines and electric delivery vans are two language tricks that show how Amazon may be dragging its feet on real progress. They’re a valuable lesson in reading between the lines of corporate jargon.

At first glance, it might seem like everything is hunky dory in Bezosland. “Even as we scaled our business at an unprecedented pace to help meet the needs of our customers through the pandemic, we saw a 1.9% reduction in our carbon intensity in 2021,” the report’s summary reads.

But the tech giant’s overall emissions actually rose in 2021, and rose by quite a lot. Emissions from their direct operations shot up an enormous 26% between 2020 and 2021, while the company’s total carbon footprint—combining emissions from both direct operations, electricity produced, and indirect sources—rose 18%. How, then, is the company able to brag about reductions of any kind?

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The devil here is in the rhetorical details: the use of the phrase “carbon intensity” versus the idea of absolute emissions. In this context, carbon intensity is the ratio of total carbon emissions to dollars of gross merchandise sales; in other words, how much carbon Amazon emits for every unit of stuff it sells. There’s definite utility in measuring carbon intensity. If a company like Amazon is managing to use fewer emissions to get a package from door-to-door, that’s a good thing to chart.

But runaway climate change won’t be fixed if all companies keep turning their focus from absolute emissions. If Amazon is delivering more and more packages, even at lower intensities, it’s those emissions that will end up going into the atmosphere. Focusing on carbon intensity rather than absolute emissions is a trick used by businesses—including fossil fuel companies—to convey progress on net zero goals when they’re actually upping their total emissions.

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“When assessing any corporate sustainability reporting, emissions intensity metrics can be useful, but they cannot replace the need for real progress towards targets that reduce emissions in absolute terms,” Johnny White, a climate accountability lawyer at environmental charity ClientEarth, told Earther in a statement. “This is for the simple reason that CO2 is cumulative in the atmosphere, and that is the metric we need to reduce globally and urgently.”

Then there’s Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing subsidiary. It’s a profitable business for Amazon: the report states that “AWS grew its revenue by 37% year-over-year in 2021.” The company has also begun emphasizing the value AWS can bring to customers concerned about their carbon footprints, rolling out a carbon calculator earlier this year and claiming that, by 2025, when AWS is supposed to be running on all renewable energy, switching to the cloud platform could lower carbon footprints by 96% compared with competitors.

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But AWS has a history of working with oil and gas companies, from big names like Exxon to smaller, lesser-known pipeline companies and oilfield services providers. AWS has positioned itself in past years as a key provider of services for fossil fuel producers: along with Microsoft, it headlined the industry conference CERAWeek in 2019—the same year Amazon created its Climate Pledge—and has maintained a significant presence at the conference since. While AWS’s former oil and gas-specific website now redirects to a website extolling the platform’s use in the more general “energy” space, there are still a multitude of fossil-fuel related case studies extolling AWS’s work on its website.

The carbon produced by services given to oil and gas companies should be factored into what are known as Scope 3 emissions, the emissions created from products and services Amazon provides to its customers. It’s not clear from this report if Amazon factors in the full impact of its services to fossil fuel producers into its Scope 3 emissions, or if it factors in some emissions from working with oil and gas companies, or if it omits them entirely. Included in the calculation of Scope 3 emissions is a section marked “other indirect emissions” that includes a mention of upstream emissions (this “other” category increased 14% between 2020 and 2021); there are no other details provided about calculations for this figure. Amazon didn’t respond to requests for more information about that line in the report or for information on how it factors in AWS’s work with oil and gas companies into its emissions calculations.

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It’s not surprising that Amazon is being opaque here. The company has a history of caginess when it comes to Scope 3. An investigation published earlier this year by the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed how the company undercounts emissions from products it sells online. And these oil-and-gas contracts can have some real consequences. A review conducted by Greenpeace on AWS competitor Microsoft found that that tech giant’s work with fossil fuel companies could add as much as 21% to the company’s larger carbon footprint.

Decarbonizing one of the biggest companies in the world was never going to be an easy feat. But these two examples show the real difficulty of decarbonizing a capitalist entity intent on continued exponential growth—Amazon’s profit rose a jaw-dropping $469.8 billion in 2021, up 22% from the year before—and illustrating how a corporation with a history of secrecy around the claims it’s making on climate can fudge its numbers.

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What good is a low-carbon software platform if that platform is then being used to create even more oil and gas? What good are reducing the emissions used to get a package to your door if the ultimate goal is to keep increasing the amount of stuff we buy year after year? These are questions that are bigger than Amazon itself, but the company deserves scrutiny and more public accountability as it wrestles with them.