Health & Science

IBM Is One of 20 Companies Joining The Climate Pledge, a Commitment to Reduce Carbon Emissions Started by Amazon and Jeff Bezos

Paul Morigi | Getty Images | Amazon

Another 20 companies joined The Climate Pledge, a public commitment to reduce carbon emissions launched by Amazon and Jeff Bezos in 2019. Including the new signatories announced Wednesday, there are 53 companies in 12 countries that have joined.

The most high profile company of the latest group is IBM. It announced Tuesday its agenda to hit "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. "Net zero" means that the greenhouse gases emitted are equivalent to those that are removed.

To achieve "net zero," IBM will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65% by 2025 when compared to its emissions in 2010, use 75% renewable energy-powered electricity by 2025 and 90% renewable energy electricity by 2030, and use carbon capture or other technologies to remove greenhouse gases equal to its "residual emissions," the computing giant says.

IBM has been disclosing its carbon emissions since 1995 and in 2019 became a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a international policy institute advocating for a plan to charge a fee on carbon emissions and return the proceeds to citizens as cash payments.

Joining The Climate Pledge will not decrease IBM's profit — "Not at all," says Wayne S. Balta, Chief Sustainability Officer at IBM.

"Overall, innovating to address climate change and other aspects of environmental sustainability represents a business opportunity that also helps the planet. Good for the economy, good for the environment. That's the essence of sustainability," he says.

"We can use data and [artificial intelligence] and computing to help in the fight against climate change. For example, the IBM Research Division is using these technologies to accelerate the discovery of materials which might help to remove carbon from the atmosphere," Balta says.

The other companies signing The Climate Pledge announced Wednesday span all manner of industries and include logistics company Vanderlande; UPM, a forest industry company offering renewable and recyclable alternatives to fossil-based materials and products; re-usable drinkware company MiiR; Johnson Controls, which sells equipment and software to regulate the internal environment of buildings; Iceland Foods, a retailer focused on eliminating single-use plastics; and Daabon, which produces and processes organic crops.

Companies already committed to the Pledge include Microsoft, Unilever, JetBlue Airways, Uber, Rivian, Best Buy, Mercedes-Benz and Verizon.

Bezos and Amazon launched The Climate Pledge in Sept. 2019 to elicit companies to publicly commit to meet the Paris Climate Agreement in 2040, 10 years before the agreement's official 2050 goal. (Bezos is currently the CEO of Amazon, but he announced earlier in February he would transition to Executive Chairman of the Board later this year.)

"We're done being in the middle of the herd on this issue—we've decided to use our size and scale to make a difference," says Bezos, in a statement on the website for The Climate Pledge. "If a company with as much physical infrastructure as Amazon — which delivers more than 10 billion items a year — can meet the Paris Agreement 10 years early, then any company can."

Bezos unveiled The Climate Pledge in the face of public criticism from employees calling on Amazon to reduce its carbon footprint (and the day before some employees were planning to walk out as part of the Global Climate Strike).

For a company, signing The Climate Pledge means agreeing to do three things:

  1. Measure greenhouse gas emissions and report them on a "regular basis."
  2. "Decarbonize" operations through a combination of "efficiency improvements, renewable energy, materials reductions, and other carbon emission elim­­ination strategies."
  3. Purchase "additional, quantifiable, real, permanent, and socially-beneficial offsets" for any carbon emissions a company is unable to operationally eliminate by 2040.

"Meeting these goals is really only something that can be done in collaboration with other large companies, because we're all part of each other's supply chains," says Bezos. "So, we have to work together, and we want to use our scale and our scope to lead the way. We know it's going to be challenging. But we know we can do it—and that we have to."

The Climate Pledge was co-founded by Amazon and Global Optimism, which is a political and strategic advisory organization aiming to catalyze action to reduce global carbon emissions. Global Optimism was co-founded by former UN Climate Chief, Christiana Figueres, and former Chief Political Strategist for the Paris Agreement, Tom Rivett-Carnac.

Broadly speaking, public declarations of intentions are helpful. "These voluntary pledges help move corporations in the right direction," Michael Gerrard, an environmental lawyer and professor at Columbia Law School, tells CNBC Make It.

"Yes, corporate pledges with specific actions and reporting on which they can be held accountable are useful in creating real change," Tensie Whelan, a professor at NYU Stern School of Business and the Director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, tells CNBC Make It. "The elements of this pledge, such as a broad target of net zero by 2040, reporting, carbon elimination and carbon offsets, are critical to the transformation we need."

A company signing onto a Pledge like Amazon's does put it under the microscope.

"While a mere pledge does not guarantee that they will do everything right from an environmental perspective, it means that they have invited scrutiny and thus are much more likely to work to move society toward a low-carbon future," Dan Esty, Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University, tells CNBC Make It.

However, the Climate Pledge is not a panacea, either, Whelan says. "This pledge is not tied to science-based targets linked to keeping warming below 2 degrees and does not define how companies should determine their targets which can lead to weak target setting," Whelan tells CNBC Make It. "Companies could elect to focus most of their efforts on carbon offsets, for example, versus reducing their emissions." (Of note: "Amazon itself has committed to science-based targets," Whelan says.) 

To this, Amazon says "carbon offsets" are only one component of the Pledge. "Offsets or nature-based solutions play a necessary, complementary and critical role alongside the decarbonization of business operations," the company says. And while "setting a science-based target is not a requirement to join," The Climate Pledge encourages signatories to do so: "We believe setting a science-based target is a best practice."

Uniformity would make the Pledge more meaningful, too. "They would have even greater impact if they used uniform measuring and reporting methods so that we know we're comparing apples to apples in looking at different companies' results," Gerrard says.

Indeed, The Climate Pledge does leave reporting format to the discretion of the signatory. "Signatories should report publicly, in a cadence that they determine, and follow reporting best practices to achieve accountability to their stakeholders," The Climate Pledge says. Also, the Pledge has partnered with CDP, a not-for-profit charity that runs the global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states and regions to manage their environmental impacts and will help signatories liaise with CDP.

See also:

This start-up backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos aims to make nearly unlimited clean energy

Bill Gates: These 5 concepts will help you understand the urgency of the climate crisis

Elon Musk: 'My top recommendation' for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a carbon tax

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