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Breaking Up Amazon Won’t Solve Its Climate Problem

The tech giant changed how Americans buy stuff. It will have to do so again—whether it wants to or not.

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren’s biggest foe in her campaign for the Democratic nomination isn’t one of the nearly 20 candidates she’s competing against. It’s Amazon. The senator, who released a plan in March to break up Big Tech, attacked the e-commerce behemoth for the umpteenth time in a CNN town hall on Tuesday.

Warren may be leading the charge, but she’s not alone. The idea of breaking up Silicon Valley’s giants—Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple—has become conventional wisdom on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and it’s increasingly gaining purchase within the establishment.

I’m not here to debate the merits of the antitrust case against Amazon. I’m interested in another consequence of Amazon’s size: Its impact on climate change. While breaking up the company might benefit its customers and smaller competitors, it would do little to reduce the company’s massive carbon footprint. Amazon’s retail division would still control half of the e-commerce market, and thus depend on just as many trucks, trains, and airplanes for deliveries; Amazon Web Services (AWS) would still control half of the cloud computing market, and thus require just as much electricity to power its server farms.

But if we’re to prevent some of the most irreversible, catastrophic effects of global warming, the company is going to have to make drastic changes to business model—under pressure, most likely. That was the message sent by more than 6,700 of Amazon’s 65,000 corporate and tech employees in the U.S. earlier this month, when they signed a letter calling on CEO Jeff Bezos and the Board of Directors to create “an immediate company-wide plan” on climate change.

We have the power to shift entire industries, inspire global action on climate, and lead on the issue of our lifetimes,” states the letter, which outlines six principles for its recommended plan. “We believe this is a historic opportunity for Amazon to stand with employees and signal to the world that we’re ready to be a climate leader.”

But it’s not just Amazon that needs to change. So do its customers—which is to say, a majority of us.

It’s impossible to know exactly how much Amazon is contributing to climate change, though we may soon find out. For the past eight years, Bezos has ignored requests from the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project, which collects the carbon footprint data of large corporations. But last month, he agreed to eventually make the company’s emissions data public. It’s expected later this year.

The company’s biggest carbon problem has always been AWS data centers, of which there are at least 68 around the world, containing between 50,000 and 80,000 servers that consume an enormous amount of energy and require huge amounts of water to keep them cool. This problem has a relatively simple solution, though: Run these server farms on renewable energy. Amazon, to its credit, is working toward that goal. As of last year, the company had invested in 53 renewable energy projects, including the Amazon Wind Farm Texas, which generates over one million megawatt hours every year. The company says it has already achieved 50 percent renewable energy in 2018, and “remains firmly committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy across our global network.”

Amazon’s e-commerce carbon problem is much harder to quantify—and solve. The company relies on third-party suppliers and vendors for a large part of its online shopping operation, and can thus claim to have no control over those companies’ carbon emissions. As The Guardian reported in 2011, “Most [products] the company ships are not technically part of its inventory... the millions of items for sale on Amazon are not on its balance sheet.” The company leases, not own, most of its warehouse space. The U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx handle the bulk of its deliveries.

But the carbon footprint of Amazon’s e-commerce business is, by any honest estimate, huge. The company ships more than five billion Prime packages per year; during the holidays, it ships more than one million items a day. In the U.S. alone, it controls more than 124 million square feet of real estate for its e-commerce operation and is in the process of controlling 40 million more. Those are warehouses, fulfillment centers, sortation centers, delivery stations, and Prime Now hubs. The company also is increasingly handling its own logistics: It now has 50 cargo airplanes, a fleet of 20,000 vans to handle so-called last-mile deliveries, and it contracts with on-demand delivery drivers, Uber-style, through Amazon Flex.

Amazon is also largely responsible for a fundamental shift in American consumerism: We now expect to have almost anything we want delivered to our doorstep within 48 hours—or even 24 hours, given changes Amazon is planning for Prime. That mentality is incompatible with solving global warming (at least, that is, until they run fully on renewable energy). Amazon Prime doesn’t just encourage people to buy more things; as BuzzFeed reported, it leads customers to make “more individual purchases rather than placing a single order for several items,” which increases the amount of resources spent on each individual purchase. It’s no coincidence, then, that the number of trucks on the road has doubled since Amazon launched in 1994. That’s a huge deal for the climate, as Vox reported last year in an article on the environmental impact of online shopping:

In 2016, transportation overtook power plants as the top producer of carbon dioxide emissions in the US for the first time since 1979. Nearly a quarter of the transportation footprint comes from medium- and heavy-duty trucks. And increasingly the impact is coming in what people in the world of supply-chain logistics call “the last mile,” meaning the final stretch from a distribution center to a package’s destination. (The “last mile” can in truth be a dozen miles or more.)

The good news is that e-commerce has the potential to be less carbon-intensive than brick-and-mortar retail. As Anne Goodchild, director of the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center, told BuzzFeed News, delivery trucks emit “between 20% and 75% less carbon dioxide per customer on average than passenger vehicles driving to [stores].” But that’s only if online stores choose the delivery times themselves. That way, they can pack trucks full of goods and optimize their routes. “When customers choose,” Goodchild noted, “the carbon savings are significantly smaller.”

Thus, Amazon could significantly cut its carbon footprint by prioritizing shipping optimization over consumer convenience. It could eliminate the delivery window for Amazon Fresh, or restrict Amazon Prime to products that can be transported via truck or train. (Sorry, that would mean you can no longer buy a pack of six tattoo pens from China for $4—with free shipping, naturally.) It could require customers to buy a minimum number of products—or minimum size or weight—to get two-day delivery. And what if you need a set of five rubber finger puppets, weighing all of 0.6 ounces, posthaste? That’s what drones are for—powered by renewable energy, of course.

Amazon probably won’t make such changes unless its customers demand it—or at least demonstrate a willingness to shop responsibly rather than whimsically. It will require an old-fashioned mentality, in a way: Americans will have to begin thinking of and other e-commerce sites not as on-demand delivery services for every little thing, but stores that require just as much forethought as a trip to the mall did twenty years ago. And that might be too much to ask of the average consumer in the digital age.

In which case, the government might have to step in.

Bezos has taken several steps to decarbonize Amazon’s e-commerce operations. Last year, he launched a program called Amazon Day, which allows Prime users to get all their deliveries on one day of the week, to allow for optimized shipping and consolidation. Amazon also launched an initiative called Shipment Zero, which aims to bring the e-commerce division’s net carbon emissions down 50 percent by the year 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.

But these half-steps won’t do. Amazon Day is an optional service, and it doesn’t ensure that all of your items will be shipped together in a single package. As for Shipment Zero, “it does not commit to a decrease in emissions compared to current levels,” this week’s letter to Bezos notes. “Given Amazon’s rate of growth, reaching 50% net-zero shipments by 2030 could still be an increase in emissions compared to today. Shipment Zero only commits to net carbon reductions, which allows us to continue to pollute.”

In a proxy statement released last week, the company’s board recommended shareholders vote against these employees’ request for a more ambitious climate plan. “The Board agrees that planning for potential disruptions posed by climate change and reducing company-wide dependence on fossil fuels are important,” they wrote. “However, the Board believes that Amazon is already doing this.”

That doesn’t mean that Amazon will never go fully green. It just means that they might be forced to do so against their will.

Say Democrats win unified control of Washington, as the Republicans did in 2016. Given the party’s increasing antipathy toward Big Tech and growing support for the Green New Deal, Amazon and its customers could be in for a reckoning. Congress could pass a law requiring online retailers to meet certain climate standards, or face penalties. Amazon would have no choice but to innovate. The government could also try the carrot instead of the stick, offering financial incentives for e-commerce companies to reduce carbon emissions (for instance, by subsidizing the purchase of electric vehicles for delivery).

The problem is much bigger than Amazon, of course. American consumerism itself—our throw-away culture—needs to change if we’re to have any success in keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, which is the more generous estimate of the tipping point for climate change. As Grist reported in 2016, citing a study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, “The stuff we consume—from food to knick-knacks—is responsible for up to 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use.”

But e-commerce’s share of the retail industry continues to grow, as does Amazon’s share of the e-commerce sector. The company that once aspired to be the “everything store” now aspires to be, simply, everything: Your online mega-mall, brick-and-mortar convenience store, supermarket, delivery service, content provider, data cloud, device manufacturer, and personal assistant. And these are just its existing services. Given its ravenous appetite for growth, Amazon is certain to expand into yet more industries. There’s no telling which ones, but as Amazon gets bigger, so will its carbon footprint—not to mention its influence on American consumerism. That, ultimately, is why the company deserves more environmental scrutiny. As goes Amazon, so goes the country.