Technology giants are among the most profitable companies in the world and therefore have a responsibility to act quickly to combat climate change. Such is the opinion of environmental group Greenpeace, which applauded Apple's recent pledge to become carbon-neutral across its entire business and manufacturing supply chain by 2030.
"I am happy to see that Apple has worked with suppliers to source actual renewable energy and that it has not relied on low-impact solutions like offsetting or renewable energy credits," said Greenpeace USA's senior corporate campaigner, Elizabeth Jardim, as quoted by BBC News.
One of the ways Apple plans to reach its goals is with the help of a robot named Dave. (No, not David, the name of the murderous robot in Ridley Scott's Alien prequels.)
Apple isn't alone in pledging a greener future. Google and Microsoft have ambitious programs of their own, programs comprised of practical, measurable steps. Let's take a look at the three massive players, alphabetically.
Apple's pledge, published in July 2020, covers not only its own operations but that of its supply chain. One way this works is through a renewable-energy matching program that applies now to the company's own data centers but would expand to cover supplier facilities too.
The program works like this: For however much electricity the data centers currently consume, Apple matches it with renewables somewhere else. Now the company commits to doing the same for its supply chain, matching the nonrenewable energy used by a supplier with renewables somewhere else in the global chain.
This commitment has the benefit of limiting fossil fuel use to 50% of the company's overall consumption. The company is investing in solar farms as part of its carbon-neutral commitment. By the 2030 deadline, Apple intends to cut 75% of emissions compared to their current levels.
Twenty-five percent emissions is a great place to be in 10 years. "Zero emissions" would have been a headline-making pledge and a lofty goal, but it's not realistic for most tech supply chains. Some energy use can't be easily swapped for greener alternatives. The jet fuel for the cargo planes that bring iPhones from China to the United States, for example, does not have a renewable equivalent.
One of the details Apple published in its 10-year plan is that a robot nicknamed Dave will be tasked with recovering rare earth elements from old devices so that they can be recycled. The haptic-feedback engine inside smartphones, laptops, tablets, and smartwatches, which vibrates slightly to confirms that you've tapped a button on the screen, contains rare earth elements and tungsten. Robot Dave will retrieve this stuff so that it can be recycled.
The four most valuable tech companies in the world right now are:
- Apple (Cupertino, Calif.): $1.90 trillion in revenue, 137,000 employees
- Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.): $1.61 trillion, 156,439 employees
- Amazon (Seattle, Wash.): $1.59 trillion, 840,400 employees
- Alphabet/Google (Mountain View, Calif.): $1.02 trillion, 123,048 employees
By 2030, Google has committed to running carbon-free data centers and offices. The company outlined its plans in September 2020. The company currently offsets its fossil fuel energy consumption with renewables and their associated certificates, which on paper can make the company's fossil fuel use look like 0%. The new policy ensures that Google will be carbon-free, not just look like it on paper.
One way that Google plans to get there is by investing in utility-scale wind, solar, hydroelectric (Glen Canyon dam pictured above), and other carbon-free energy projects, to the tune of $5 billion, reports MSN. Google said the move will create 20,000 jobs.
"The science is clear: The world must act now if we’re going to avert the worst consequences of climate change,” Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, said in a blog post. "We are the first major company to make a commitment to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy in all our data centers and campuses worldwide. This is far more challenging than the traditional approach of matching energy usage with renewable energy, but we’re working to get this done by 2030."
How can a tech company do better than carbon-free? Microsoft sees Google's carbon-neutrality pledge for 2030 and ups it with carbon-negative.
"The world’s climate experts agree that the world must take urgent action to bring down emissions. Ultimately, we must reach net-zero emissions, meaning that humanity must remove as much carbon as it emits each year, Microsoft's president, Brad Smith, said in a blog post. "While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so. That’s why today we are announcing an ambitious goal and a new plan to reduce and ultimately remove Microsoft’s carbon footprint."
As do Apple and Google, Microsoft knows that it must clean up its supply chain, not only itself, if it's going to make a difference to the planet. The company is launching a program to use Microsoft technology to help suppliers and customers around the world reduce their own carbon footprint.
Not just reducing but removing.
Being carbon-negative means a company must remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. To reach this goal this, Microsoft will invest $1 billion in carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies. "Solving our planet’s carbon issues will require technology that does not exist today," said Smith. Again we think of the Alien series, specifically the enormous pyramidal atmosphere processors that dotted the planet in James Cameron's sequel. Who's to say our carbon problem won't be cleaned up with the help of similar equipment?
A 10-year-old tree absorbs 22kg of CO2 per year. If every American family planted just one tree, it could reduce global CO2 about 5%.
Source: Carbon Pirates
Microsoft will be grounding its goals on the "best available science and most accurate math," and taking concrete, measurable steps to get there. By 2025, Microsoft will offset 100% of the carbon-emitting electricity consumed by its data centers, buildings, and campuses with renewables. The company's entire global vehicle fleet with be electric by 2030. These are just two of the worthwhile goals outlined in the company's highly detailed plan.
This new decade has already brought a global pandemic, the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, and political upheaval, but it also prompted three of the most valuable companies in the world (all of them American) to pledge greener futures. It's great to see tech heavyweights putting their money where their mouth is with measurable goals and transparency. These commitments, bolstered by countless others like them, are the best chance we have of combatting climate change and pollution.