Corporate PR will not solve the climate crisis

This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first part of its sixth assessment on climate change. The report, which represents the consensus view of thousands of the world's top scientists, is both alarming and hopeful. 

The IPCC report is alarming because it states unequivocally that humans have already significantly "warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land." This warming, the report finds, is already contributing to extreme weather events, including "heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones." If carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate or intensify, things will get much worse. 

But the IPCC report is also hopeful because it makes clear that the world still has time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Between 1850 and 2019, approximately 2,390 gigatons of carbon dioxide  were emitted worldwide. That warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees celsius. Every ton of CO2 emitted contributes to more warming. To have a chance to cap total warming at around 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is necessary to avoid many of the worst impacts, the IPCC says the world can emit about 400 more gigatons of carbon dioxide in total. To avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius in warming that carbon budget increases to around 1,150 more gigatons.

But in either scenario, there is no "sustainable" rate of CO2 emissions. Emissions need to go to net zero sooner rather than later. As Emily Atkin notes in HEATED, this means the world has to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. The IPCC reports in its technical summary that "[f]ossil fuel combustion is responsible for 64 percent of the increase in human-caused carbon dioxide emissions since 1750, and responsible for 86 percent of emission growth over the last 10 years." Another major factor is deforestation because forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere. 

"[G]reenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a press release, "This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet."

The largest corporations in the world want you to believe they are part of the solution. Amazon, for example, says that it is "committed to building a sustainable business for our customers and the planet" and boasts that it "co-founded The Climate Pledge—a commitment to be net-zero carbon across our business by 2040." Microsoft has pledged to become "carbon negative" by 2030. Google has the most ambitious goal, endeavoring to be the first "major company to achieve 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030." 

This all sounds good. And there have been meaningful changes at large corporations to address climate change. But there is also a lot public relations spin. How corporate America is engaging on climate change is falling short of what the moment demands. 

By focusing on "net-zero" emission reduction goals years or decades into the future, large companies obscure the present reality. Some companies that are making ambitious pledges in 2040 or 2030 are seeing their carbon emissions go up in the short term. Even in the long run, some pledges involve offsetting substantial carbon emissions with massive carbon sinks (such as new forests) that may never materialize.

The IPCC report also makes clear that climate change is not a problem that can be solved by a few companies making voluntary pledges. Rather, there needs to be immediate and systemic action to reduce emissions. This kind of action can only come from the government. Google, Microsoft, and Amazon all support politicians and political organizations who are determined to block any action to address climate change. 

The truth about "net-zero"

Currently, numerous corporations––including even big oil companies––have made ambitious pledges to reduce their carbon emissions to net-zero. This means a company promises to balance the amount of emissions it produces with the amount of emissions it removes, or offsets, from the atmosphere. Last year, the number of global pledges to reach net-zero emissions from local governments and businesses nearly doubled, according to one study. 

But how meaningful are these pledges in averting our current climate crisis?

A 2021 report from the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit found that “many net zero commitments, while a sign of good intention, lack the high levels of ambition required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Specifically, only 20% of the net-zero commitments the researchers analyzed “meet a set of basic robustness criteria.” The report also highlighted concerns around offsetting carbon emissions and the “lack of specifics around short-term actions.”

Amazon’s fossil fuel usage, for example, increased 69% in 2020 due to the surge in online orders. As a result, carbon emissions grew by 19%. Yet, that same year, Amazon co-founded “The Climate Pledge”––an initiative to encourage global businesses to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. 

These corporate pledges also don’t necessarily account for all the emissions a company produces. Google has been “carbon-neutral” since 2007. But this label, the Grist reports, only accounts for “the company’s offices, data centers, and employees’ commutes and business travel,” which only makes up 27% of the company’s annual contribution to climate change. Emissions associated with “manufacturing and transporting products like the Pixel or Chromebook,” for instance, are not included in Google’s net-zero targets.

Amazon, Google and Microsoft are also selling cloud and AI technology to "world’s dirtiest oil companies for the explicit purpose of getting more oil and gas out of the ground and onto the market faster and cheaper." They are helping companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron "unlock oil and gas deposits in the U.S. and around the world" through advanced data management and analysis. The additional carbon emissions driven by these technologies are not accounted for in the companies' pledges. But maximizing the production and profits of fossil fuel companies is not consistent with seriously addressing climate change. 

In some cases, companies have distorted their net-zero goals by over-relying on carbon removal instead of reducing emissions, allowing these companies to essentially go about business as usual. This approach, however, heavily underestimates the amount of land that would be needed to achieve net-zero. Shell Oil Company, an Oxfam report finds, would need to forest an area of land equivalent to the size of Honduras to achieve net zero by 2030.  “[I]t is mathematically impossible to plant enough trees to meet the combined net zero targets announced by governments and corporations, as there is simply not enough land to do this,” the report states. The researchers also note that the increased demand for land as a result of these net-zero carbon targets risks resulting in the mass displacement of low-income communities. 

Meanwhile, other companies are making net-zero pledges while also lobbying against increased climate change disclosures. BP, which plans to be a net-zero company by 2050 or sooner, wrote a letter this year to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requesting that companies calculate emissions based on their own methodologies, reports the Financial Times (FT). The company told the FT that it still “supporting the SEC adopting new disclosure requirements for climate change.”

Saying the right things, funding the wrong people

Google says all the right things about climate change. In a 2020 blog post, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that "the world must act now if we’re going to avert the worst consequences of climate change." But, in 2020, Google's corporate PAC also donated $10,000 to Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the most incendiary climate science denier in Congress. 

In a 2003 speech on the Senate floor, Inhofe called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Inhofe argues that humans have a religious obligation to continue extracting fossil fuels. "[W]e are made in God’s image and should use the resources God has given us," Inhofe said in 2007. In 2016, one of Inhofe's grandchildren asked him why he "didn't understand global warming." Inhofe said the question was proof that his grandchild had been brainwashed. In 2017, Inhofe wrote Trump and advised him to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Trump took his advice. 

Inhofe has announced that he will retire when his current term expires in 2027. But Google has made contributions in 2021 that could help put Inhofe, who previously chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, back in a leadership role. Google's PAC donated $15,000 on June 30 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). That money will be used to help Republicans regain control of the Senate. If the NRSC is successful, there will be no meaningful climate legislation for the next two years — two years where action is absolutely essential. 

Google's PAC also donated $15,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is devoted to helping Republicans retake control of the House. That would also block all meaningful climate legislation for the rest of Biden's term in office. 

In 2021, Google has already directly supported several Republican members of Congress who oppose taking action on climate change and, as a result, were awarded a zero rating by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). This group includes Congressman Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS). 

Lee argued in 2019 that the solution to climate change "is to fall in love, get married and have some kids." Because, according to Lee problems are solved not by "more laws" but "more humans." Lee said that "[m]ore babies mean forward-looking adults, the sort we need to tackle long-term, large-scale problems."

Amazon and Microsoft have similar issues. Amazon's PAC donated $8,500 to Inhofe, $15,000 to the NRSC, and $15,000 to the NRCC in the 2020 election cycle. In 2021, Amazon has supported Lee and Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), who also has a zero rating from the LCV. Microsoft's PAC donated $2,500 to Inhofe, $15,000 to the NRSC, and $15,000 to the NRCC in 2020. In 2021, Microsoft has supported Lee and Armstrong. 

Why does this matter? Because what the United States Congress does over the next five years is more important than what Google or any individual company does. If the people in charge don't believe climate change exists — or don't believe the government should do anything about it — nothing will happen.