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Advocacy groups say tech giants need to 'step it up' on sustainability

Advocacy groups say tech giants need to 'step it up' on sustainability
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The five biggest tech companies in the U.S. have touted a wide array of sustainability initiatives, but critics say the companies fall short where it matters — lobbying. 

Despite the financial success of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, environmental advocacy groups say the tech giants are not putting enough financial support behind lobbying for pro-climate public policy.

“The individual actions that companies are taking are vital, and we need them to keep doing that and to step it up. But the most important thing that we all need is public policy that really bends the climate curve,” Bill Weihl, executive director of ClimateVoice, told The Hill.

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“Companies need to be willing to get in there and honestly take some political risks, pick a side. Because continuing to stay on the sidelines is essentially picking the side of the status quo,” Weihl added.

Weihl previously served as the green energy czar at Google and the director of sustainability at Facebook. Now he says that while the companies can all point to examples where they stepped up in favor of pro-climate policies, there are more examples where they stayed silent.

“And that's been true for the last probably decade, at least,” he said.

InfluenceMap, a London-based think tank, released a report on “Big Tech and Climate Policy” in January detailing how the five largest tech companies did — or largely did not — lobby for climate policy.

Only 4 percent of the disclosed lobbying activity of “Big Tech,” the term the report uses for the five previously mentioned companies, was devoted to climate-related policies, according to the report. But “Big Oil” has devoted an average of 38 percent of disclosed lobbying activity to climate-related policies, based on the report.

The report also found that in California, where Apple, Facebook and Google’s parent company Alphabet are headquartered, the companies displayed “a similarly low level of climate-related lobbying,” despite the extensive ongoing climate policy agenda in the state.

Beyond Silicon Valley, the tech companies’ buildings, data centers and regional offices are spread across 22 states. The report found that the companies engaged with climate policy in fewer than half of those states.

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While critics argue that efforts focused on combating climate change and achieving sustainability are not enough, Adam Kovacevich, founder and CEO of Chamber of Progress, says big tech has taken “tangible” steps in-house to combat climate change.

Chamber of Progress is a newly launched tech coalition that brings together top tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook and Google.

“The companies have traditionally focused on the action that they can take in-house to tackle climate change, particularly in making sure their facilities are powered by clean energy and other steps. They’ve really been primarily focused on tangible steps they can take internally,” Kovacevich said.

Before launching Chamber of Progress, which Kovacevich defines as “center-left,” he worked in public policy positions at Google and electric scooter company Lime.

Google has been carbon neutral since 2007, and the company has pledged to be carbon free by 2030. The tech giant also touts its “cleanest cloud in the industry,” which is also used to serve governments at the federal, state and local levels.

Facebook has set a goal to reach net-zero emissions by the end of 2021, and the company said it is on track to meet that goal.

“We are committed to fighting climate change and are taking substantive steps to address this important issue,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We have publicly supported the US rejoining the Paris Agreement, we’re one of the largest corporate buyers of renewable energy, and we’re minimizing our own environmental impact, while working with partners on solutions for a more sustainable world.”

Microsoft has been carbon neutral since 2012 and has a commitment to be carbon negative by 2030. Microsoft has also made additional commitments to replenish more water than it consumes by 2030, and to produce zero waste through direct operations, packaging and products by the same deadline.

Apple is carbon neutral and has pledged to make all of its products carbon neutral by 2030, according to its website. A spokesperson for Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

However, Amazon has perhaps faced the strongest pushback of the top tech companies on the sustainability front. 

Last year, a group of Amazon employees joined together to publish a Medium post speaking out about climate change and Amazon’s impact.

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, the group of corporate Amazon employees across the country, has continued to push Amazon on sustainability, with an emphasis on environmental justice.

The group has also been critical over Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosHillicon Valley: Trump's Facebook ban to stay in place, board rules | Facebook board's Trump decision pleases no one | Republicans float support for antitrust reform Republicans urge probe into Amazon government cloud-computing bid: report SpaceX's Elon Musk has become the coolest capitalist of them all MORE’s public philanthropic efforts on climate change. When Bezos announced in February he would be donating $10 billion to his new “Bezos Earth Fund” initiative to fight climate change, the group issued a statement that the donation does not make up for the damage they view the company doing.

“We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away,” the group said in the statement.

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An Amazon spokesperson defended the company's work on climate change in a statement.

“Amazon believes both private and public sector leadership is required to tackle the global issue of climate change. That’s why we actively advocate for policies that promote clean energy, increase access to renewable electricity, and decarbonize the transportation system,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also touted Amazon’s co-founding of the Climate Pledge, a commitment for signatories to be net-zero carbon by 2040. Microsoft has also signed on to the Climate Pledge.

Kovacevich said leaders at tech companies have been “waiting to see the best area to engage sustainability in policy and go beyond slogans,” noting that climate change proposals had little chance of moving during the Trump administration.

“Speaking up on climate policy in the Trump years would’ve been like shouting into the wind,” he said.

Going forward, Kovacevich said, the main way companies can back climate policy will be through support of the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan.

“I think lobbying resources will increase as it’s becoming clear what the primary vehicle this year will be for climate change action,” he said.

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Weihl, of ClimateVoice, said there have been “encouraging signs” in the past several months that companies are paying more attention to lobbying efforts, with tech corporations putting out statements on public policy.

However, the group is pushing for more action.

ClimateVoice recently launched a campaign urging the companies to spend 20 percent of their lobbying dollars this year on the climate policy fight. Part of the campaign features a comic book-inspired digital ad campaign to urge tech employees to “become heroes” in the climate policy battle.

“It's one thing for them to express an opinion, it's another thing for them to really lobby like they mean it, like it is an existential issue for them and the rest of us,” Weihl said.