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Will big tech aggravate or solve the climate change problem?


It seemed like the Paris Agreement might have finally turned the tide of climate change. Enforced back in 2015, it was meant to limit global warming by encouraging companies to adopt carbon neutrality strategies. But where do we find ourselves in 2022?

Today, it seems like the commitments of big tech corporations to solve the climate crisis might not be as grand as initially proposed. If we take a closer look at their climate-related initiatives, we will, however, find quite similar and seemingly ambitious targets.

For example, Facebook (now Meta) is planning to reach net-zero emissions for its value chain and become water positive by 2030.

“Today, we’re building on these efforts and announcing a new goal to be water positive by 2030. This means Facebook will return more water to the environment than we consumed for our global operations,” the company’s statement reads.

Google is setting the same goals. They seek to replenish more water than they consume by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions, as well as fully run on carbon-free energy.

“To accelerate the transition to a circular economy, we’re working to maximize the reuse of finite resources across our operations, products, and supply chains and to enable others to do the same,” its annual report suggests.

Apple and Microsoft are also planning to reach carbon neutrality and carbon negativity by 2030 respectively. The difference between the two is that carbon neutrality means emitting the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as removing, while carbon negativity means removing more carbon than emitting.

“We strive to be transparent with our commitments, evidenced by our announcement that Microsoft’s cloud datacenters will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2025,” said Microsoft’s statement.

Healthy ambitions or unrealistic goals sold to gullible consumers?

Undoubtedly, such initiatives by big tech make quite an impression, but their implementation is questionable. To some experts, they are just impressive-sounding statements that have little in common with reality.

“Misleading advertisements by companies have real impacts on consumers and policymakers. We’re fooled into believing that these companies are taking sufficient action, when the reality is far from it,” said Gilles Dufrasne from Carbon Market Watch.

A report by New Climate found that 25 of the world’s largest companies (such as Amazon and Google) only commit to reducing their emissions by 40% instead of 100% stated in their carbon neutrality strategies. According to the findings, “only one company’s net-zero pledge was evaluated as having ‘reasonable integrity’; three with ‘moderate,’ ten with ‘low’ and the remaining 12 were rated as having ‘very low’ integrity.” The reasons for such results vary: from unreliable offsetting approaches to hiding critical information and excluding upstream/downstream emissions in their value chain (which account for as much as 90% of all controlled emissions.)

However, it’s not just unrealistic targets that prevent corporate giants from making such an expected change. Their desire to lead any policy-related climate initiative is – to say the least – not very evident.

According to the report by Influence Map, while the big five (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft) have been relatively successful in their own climate programs, the group lags behind when it comes to climate policy engagement. As a result, they fail to use their strong economic stance to support the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

At the same time, the relevant climate-engagement levels of Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft had declined in comparison to 2020.

“This report shows how Big Tech has refused to lift a finger to push comprehensive climate action in Congress. That may soon change, and the best place to start is ensuring that Big Tech’s trade associations are powerful advocates for ambitious climate action,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse commented on the findings.

This view is echoed in the words of Bill Weihl, who stated that big tech is refusing to lead the climate change initiative and is significantly falling behind “despite their pro-climate philosophy.”

Who’s to blame?

Since the implementation of the Paris Agreement, many positive developments have been pushed forward while others are stalling. In 2017, former US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal from the agreement, which could, according to him, “put the country at a permanent disadvantage.” The decision was later revoked by President Joe Biden, showing that political commitments are of utmost importance to climate development.

Either way, the enforcement of the agreement on its own is not likely to prevent climate change. In the beginning, it was supposed to be only the first step towards more actions taken on the national and corporate levels. But where do big tech companies belong in this equation?

The tech industry accounts for 2-3% of global emissions while big tech contributes around 0.3%. It may not seem like much, but it amounts to millions metric tons of carbon dioxide produced annually.

In 2021, a European Green Digital Coalition was formed to support the sustainability of the tech sector. Its members include Microsoft, IBM, and Vodafone Group. Going forward, it’s essential to have a broader cross-national consensus on the climate change approach, both within big tech organizations and countries globally.


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