(Bloomberg) -- Acknowledging a steady drumbeat of criticism from activists and a vocal group of his own employees, Amazon.com Inc. founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos announced the formation of a new organization, the Climate Pledge, to meet the goals of the landmark Paris climate agreement 10 years early.
In a joint press conference in Washington with Christiana Figueres, formerly the United Nation’s executive secretary for climate change, Bezos said Amazon will reach 80% renewable energy use by 2024 and 100% by 2030, up from 40% today. To help get there, Amazon has placed an order of 100,000 electric vehicles from a startup it has backed, Rivian Automotive Inc. The first Rivian vehicles will arrive in 2021.
Bezos’s pledge came a day before more than 1,500 Amazon employees are scheduled to walk out of their offices to draw attention to what they see as the company’s inaction on climate change. The protest is part of a wider strike organized by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg ahead of next week’s United Nations Climate Action Summit.
“The global strike tomorrow is totally understandable,” Bezos said. “People are passionate about this issue. By the way, they should be passionate about this issue.”
The group organizing the employee walkout, Amazon Employees for Climate Change, has been pressuring Amazon for almost a year to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and detail how it’s preparing to deal with business disruptions caused by climate change. Inside Amazon’s annual meeting in May, an employee speaking on behalf of the group asked for the opportunity to share her concerns with Bezos directly, but was denied. Shareholders voted down their proposal for Amazon to disclose a comprehensive climate change plan.
The employee group on Thursday called Amazon’s pledge “a huge win.”
“We’re thrilled at what workers [have] been able to achieve in less than a year,” the group said in a statement. “But we know it’s not enough.”The steps outlined in the Paris Climate Accords on their own aren’t sufficient to protect the planet, they said. “Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we’ll be in the streets to continue to fight for a livable future.”
In February, two months after the employees went public with their campaign, Amazon promised to disclose its carbon footprint by the end of the year and pledged that half its shipments would be carbon neutral by 2030, a so-called Zero Shipment project. Amazon has argued that an e-commerce model, with delivery vehicles making numerous stops in each neighborhood, is inherently more efficient than individual shoppers taking the odd trip to the store for items like a gallon of milk. Bezos added that free next-day shipping for Prime members, which the company is in the process of rolling out, is more environmentally efficient because products can be warehoused locally, reducing travel times and bypassing the need to ship products via air.
Amazon in recent years has built a team of hundreds of employees focused on sustainability issues who oversee the company's fleet of wind and solar farms and lead experiments with environmentally friendly packaging and business practices. The group also led development of Amazon’s methodology to calculate the company’s carbon footprint. But the group hadn’t committed to releasing the result of their work on greenhouse gases to the public until after Amazon employees began their advocacy campaign, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Amazon is relatively late among tech companies to share its environmental impact, experts say. Apple has released an environmental impact report with increasing levels of detail for the last decade. Google first published a comprehensive report on its energy use in 2011.
“Amazon was not one of the leaders, for sure,” said Aseem Prakash, a professor of political science at the University of Washington who tracks environmental policy. “But frankly, it’s irrelevant. If Amazon is taking the right steps to transform this new industry, it’s a huge step. If they can revolutionize the trucking industry, the data center industry, the packaging industry, they are doing a great service to humanity.”
Prakash said he would like to see Amazon disclose more specifics about plans to power its data centers with renewable energy. The company has also been reluctant to talk about using its influence as a massive buyer of goods to encourage green practices among manufacturers, he said.
Amazon was among the hundreds of U.S. companies to sign on to a corporate commitment to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accords when it became clear the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement.
But Bezos went his own way in creating a new initiative. He recruited Figueres to co-found the Climate Pledge, which calls on companies to be net carbon neutral by 2040—a decade earlier than stipulated by the Paris accords. The pair said they would hold an annual conference for companies to share best practices for reducing their climate footprint. “Swallow the alarm clock,” she said. “We are running out of time. Science tells us we have about a minute left to get the work done we need to get done.”
Amazon on Thursday also announced a $100 million donation to the Nature Conservancy to fund the Right Now Climate Fund, which engages in reforestation projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Bezos started the press conference by reviewing the accelerating state of climate change, which he called “dire.” But he also said he was optimistic that society can invent a solution. “When invention gets involved, when people get determined, when passion comes out, when they make strong goals, you can invent your way out of any box. That’s what we humans need to do right now.”
--With assistance from Matt Day.
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