Big tech companies and climate change

When Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, the tech giants were some of his loudest critics, but are these global corporations pulling their own weight in the fight for climate justice?

Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon all signed up to the “we’re still in” campaign whose signatories promise to “pursue ambitious climate goals ... as part of the global effort to hold warming to well below 2°C.”

In terms of brute financial self-interest, you’d expect the IT sector to be somewhat less negatively inclined towards climate action than some other industries. While IT obviously does have a climate impact (particularly making the actual devices), it is a big part of most low-carbon future scenarios – ‘dematerialisation’ into the weightless digital world is often discussed as a way to cut emissions.

The IT companies are certainly trying to position themselves as climate leaders. In January, Microsoft published a detailed ‘carbon negative by 2030’ plan, and Amazon has pledged to get to neutral by 2040 (‘neutral’ or ‘negative’ here do not just mean offsetting).

They are also throwing some money around: Microsoft’s plan includes a $1 billion fund to “accelerate the global development of carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies”.

And, in February, Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos announced his not-so-humbly named “Bezos Earth Fund”, a $10 billion fund to help tackle climate change. That’s more than double the tax that Amazon has deigned to pay globally since 2010.

Oil in the cloud: Creating AI for oil and gas extraction

However, how deep the tech giants’ climate commitments run looks rather questionable – as one hand is writing them, their other hand doesn’t seem to have quite got the message.

In May 2020, Greenpeace produced a report called ‘Oil in the Cloud’ detailing the partnerships that Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have with oil companies to create bespoke artificial intelligence (AI) software for oil and gas extraction. The fossil fuel industries are increasing their use of AI at an astronomical rate – in 2018, they spent around $1.75 billion on it.

Microsoft is the most involved and has explicitly said that its ‘carbon negative’ plan will not include cancelling these contracts.

After Greenpeace’s report came out, Google, which was already winding its oil and gas contracts down, pledged to stop them altogether. Greenpeace is encouraging people to contact the other two and ask them to follow suit. You can do so here.

Funding free market and climate denial think tanks

What many of the tech giants are doing on the political front also sits uneasily with their professed concerns about climate change.

Google lists on its website political groups to whom it gives “the most substantial contributions”. In October 2019, the Guardian noted that the list includes free-market think tanks well known for spreading climate denial misinformation, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the American Enterprise Institute. Google refused to say how much it has given them.

Donations from the other tech giants have also been discovered, and because most of the funding of these groups is secret, any information on it tends to look significant. In July 2019 the New York Times obtained the list of donors for a recent gala organised by the CEI. Google, Amazon and Verizon were all listed.

Facebook, Microsoft and Google all sponsored the 2019 LibertyCon, which promotes “free markets and individual liberty” and included a session by the climate denier group the CO2 Coalition. And the Cato Institute (which is less secretive than many of the others) lists both Facebook and Google as major donors in its recent annual reports.

It is most likely that the reason behind these donations is nothing to do with the climate. All of these think tanks also argue against tech regulation. The CEI, for example, has argued against using antitrust regulation to break up the tech giants.

However, climate denial is no small part of their work, and they are not small players. Myron Ebell, the notorious head of the CEI’s environment section who has called climate change a “hoax” for decades, worked in Trump’s transition team and is widely believed to have been instrumental in convincing him to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

As a result of these donations, we marked these companies down in the Political Activities category.

Microsoft and the Climate Leadership Council

There are yet more disturbing ideological shenanigans from Microsoft. Tucked away in its ‘Carbon Negative by 2030’ plan – much of which does look genuinely good, is an ominous section on “using our voice on carbon-related public policy issues”. It calls for “the removal of regulatory barriers to help catalyse markets to enable carbon- reduction technologies”.

What this means is made clear by Microsoft’s membership of the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), a lobby group composed largely of corporations – including Shell and ExxonMobil (which should ring some alarm bells), and right-wing economists.

CLC is pushing for the dismantling of most of the Obama administration’s climate policies, to be replaced with a slowly rising carbon tax starting at $40 per tonne, with the money returned to citizens in dividends.

In its original proposals it also demanded that fossil fuel companies be given immunity from legal liability for climate change. However, after a backlash, it dropped that part in September 2019.

However, the CLC’s proposals are still deeply problematic. A carbon price is a good idea. But the neoliberal idea of trading everything else for one (thus leaving nearly everything up to the market), is not. Sectors vary hugely in how hard they are hit by any particular price, so unless the price is complemented by targeted interventions, you cannot set it high enough to get the required changes in some areas without decimating other ones. As nobody is really prepared to do that, a carbon price on its own will always be set too low to do much.

And indeed, the CLC’s proposals amount to a 2030 carbon price of $60- $65 a tonne. The UN estimated that $135 to $5,500 would be needed by 2030 to avoid 1.5 degrees of warming, and noted that unless complemented with other mechanisms, the required price rises implausibly high.

cartoon image: the two faces of bezos greenwashing amazon