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How to read a tech company climate plan

Protocol Climate

Good morning, and welcome to the first Protocol Climate newsletter! It’s great to have you. Today, we’re diving into how to read a tech company’s climate plan. I’m Brian Kahn, and I’ll be your guide into the climate wilderness, along with our new climate reporter Lisa Martine Jenkins. (Don’t worry, we can hold hands if you need to.) But first, a few words about what to expect around these parts each week.

It’s showtime

The climate crisis is the biggest existential threat facing humanity. And as the world’s most powerful industry, tech has a huge role to play in solving the problem. Protocol Climate will explore how new technologies are being used to tackle climate change — and how the tech industry is reckoning with its own environmental impact.

To address the climate crisis and avert the worst impacts, everything about the world as we know it will have to transform. The world will need to untether the economy from fossil fuels, new markets for carbon will need to spring up and some businesses may cease to exist in a carbon-constrained world. No big deal, right?

We’ll be looking at how the tech industry has to change, and how it could change society. That means exploring the technologies that promise to help reduce carbon pollution, how the tech industry is reckoning with its own environmental impact and the policies that could speed up the deployment of the technology we need to avert catastrophe. We’ll tell those stories on the Protocol site, in live and virtual events and, of course, they’ll be delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s now or never for those seeking to stabilize the climate, and we’re glad to have you with us as we explore what that looks like for the tech industry. Now, on with the news!

Your climate plan bullshit detector

Seemingly every day, a new tech company drops a climate plan or updates an existing one. They’re among the most important sustainability documents a company can produce, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that many have a whiff of, well, bullshit about them. That’s not to say they’re all terrible or in bad faith, of course.

There's just a tangled web of motivations at play behind all these climate plans.

  • Governments are failing to do much at all about climate change, leaving a Category 5 hurricane-sized void.
  • There’s the fact that, uh, well, we better do something about the whole heat-death of the planet thing before it’s too late.
  • Tech workers are increasingly agitating from the inside for companies to address the climate crisis, as are activist board members.
  • And, yes, there’s a desire to capture some good PR as the public grows more concerned about the climate crisis.
  • All of which is to say there are some noble reasons, some that are not so much, and that has led to a very mixed bag of pledges.

Adding to the confusion:Climate plans can be really hard to decode, which makes working out which commitments are real and which ones are PR fluff a painful task. But don’t worry, friend. Protocol Climate is here to help. Like any topic, climate change is one full of buzzwords, which means step one is understanding what, exactly, those buzzwords mean. Let’s take a quick tour of some of the key concepts:

  • Net zero: Any in-vogue climate plan will almost surely mention a company’s net-zero goal. That simply means that the company pledges to reduce its emissions to as close to zero as possible and offset the rest. That’s the whole “net” part of “net zero.” Many companies — including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft — have set a goal of being net zero by 2050 (though some are aiming to do so even sooner). That would technically align with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a key target. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in the term that actually makes this target less valuable than it seems. (More on that below.)
  • Scopes of emissions: Carbon emissions come in three flavors: Scope, 1, 2 and 3. Consider this the Neapolitan ice cream of carbon pollution. Scope 1 emissions are the choco … errr, direct emissions from a company (say, the tailpipe emissions from an Amazon delivery truck). Scope 2 emissions are indirect sources (emissions from a power plant that Amazon buys electricity from). Then there’s Scope 3, where most companies’ emissions are: Those are tied to the entire value chain both up- and downstream (i.e., the supplier manufacturing the gas-powered leaf blower you bought on Amazon, and then you using it. Tsk, tsk. Get an electric one!)
  • Carbon offsets: These are a quick and easy way for companies to basically tithe for polluting by buying credits to back a forest project in California or a solar farm in Bolivia that will (in theory) sequester carbon dioxide or put more renewable power on the grid that wouldn’t have been installed otherwise. But it’s very different than companies actually reducing emissions.

That’s just emissions, though. Climate plans can also include a host of other metrics, including commitments to putting pressure on suppliers to clean up their act; planning for how to adapt to climate change in the pipeline; and financial planning.

  • Remember the famous climate person koan: Climate change affects everything, which means everything has to change. In short, there are a lot of moving parts.
  • But to spare your inbox, we’re going to focus on the emissions parts here.

So how do you tell the good from the bad? The fact that there are no globally unified climate reporting requirements means that companies can get away with saying basically anything they want in the plan. Luckily, there are a few key things that can help us tell which companies are real on climate.

  • Interim targets: Net zero by 2050 sure sounds nice. But if a company doesn’t have a meaningful series of interim targets — in 2025, 2030 and so on — to help it get there, that’s a huge red flag.
  • A Scope 3 plan: Scope 3 emissions are the lion’s share for most companies. At Microsoft, Scope 3 emissions make up a whopping 75% of the total. Ditto for Amazon. If you’re not addressing Scope 3 emissions, do you even care about the climate, bro?
  • A reasonable offset strategy: There are simply not enough offsets in the world to make the math for a habitable planet work. “Offsets really shouldn't play a role in achieving [net zero], except for the last mile,” Simon Fischweicher, the head of Corporations and Supply Chains at corporate accountability nonprofit CDP, told Protocol.
  • Executive accountability: Executive bonuses typically align with making shareholders more money. That’s nice and all, but companies with credible climate plans can also ensure that part of their executive compensation is tied to prioritizing the planet, which Fischweicher said is “really critical.”
  • The best plans feature all of this, and in Thursday’s newsletter, we’ll walk you through how you can think about these issues in more detail so that you can write a killer climate plan for your own company.
Sadly, even the best plans might not be good enough at the moment. The good news is some companies are doing great work putting together plans. The bad news is they’re having a hard time meeting them. Microsoft, for example, announced that it saw emissions rise by 21.5% last year as customers bought tons of Xboxes and its data centers expanded. Just the week prior, it received an “A” from corporate accountability nonprofit As You Sow for its plan. I don’t say this to trash Microsoft; good on it for trying! But the company’s failure to get on track shows why we can’t necessarily rely on tech companies to shoulder the burden alone. This meme basically sums it up.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler sees cities as climate innovation hubs

Protocol Climate hosted a launch dinner at the Goals House at SXSW on Monday night. Your diligent climate editor couldn’t just sit down and relax at dinner, though. (OK, I did do that eventually.) To kick off the gathering, I sat down with Austin Mayor Steve Adler to talk about the city’s climate plan and how Texas’ tech hub is cleaning up its carbon pollution. Below are some of the highlights of our chat.

  • Mayors are more accountable than other policymakers. Adler said his proximity to constituents means he has to deliver on Austin’s climate goals — or face questions when he’s out in the community: “At a city level, platitudes and aspirations don’t really carry much weight. The people I run into at the grocery store don’t want to know about what the aspirations are. I get asked really specific questions about … why did I make this decision to fund this priority this way and not another.”
  • That responsiveness means cities can get things done faster. Adler was at the United Nations climate talks last November and “it was [really] frustrating to watch the speed at which nation-states are moving.” He said he’d like to see cities connect with each other, whether it’s to share knowledge or even finances so that cities in the Global North help those in the Global South with their own decarbonization efforts.
  • Austin has a net-zero plan. In line with that responsiveness, Austin has set an aggressive net zero by 2040 plan, “with a strong emphasis on cutting emissions by 2030.” That includes deploying new building technologies like heat pumps, building out an EV charging network and increasing access to micromobility and public transit. Adler pointed out the city added “equity” when it revised its climate plan, reflecting that the energy transition has to include everyone.

Look out for a longer version of this conversation with Adler that we’ll publish on later today.


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A tweet to make you think

I’m a former park ranger, so I feel the urge to protect beautiful things from development in my bones. (Seriously, it’s a job requirement.) But the climate change era requires a different calculus.

Opposition suits the environmental movement precisely because it was built on stopping the destruction of the natural world, which meant halting things like cutting down forests for timber or strip mining for coal. It essentially meant putting a protective barrier around the things that matter. That paradigm still matters, even when it comes to climate-friendly technologies like solar farms or lithium mines, which can cause local destruction. But climate change poses a much greater stress on the planet as a whole. The very laws meant to protect the natural world are being used to slow down progress addressing it, ironically raising the risk of more losses.

It’s incumbent on policymakers and society to grapple with what the right balance of clean energy development and environmental protections (to say nothing of environmental justice protections) is. In other words, do you really want to wait 10 years to site an offshore wind farm while the rest of the planet burns?

Hot links

Uber promised the world it would get its drivers in EVs. Now, it has to deliver.

Carbon offsets are increasingly on the ecommerce shopping list. But they may not necessarily be the best deal in town.

So much for a green COVID-19 recovery. Just 6% of pandemic stimulus funds in G20 countries went to clean energy and other tools to protect the climate, according to a new Nature study.

The invasion of Ukraine has the potential to either amp up or stall the clean energy transition; all we know for certain is that things are, well, uncertain.

Tree-planting — the darling of carbon offset defenders everywhere — has its potential climate and environmental downsides.

Ethanol producers are betting on carbon capture and storage to solve their emissions woes, despite high costs and a performance record that is … spotty at best.

Invoking environmental laws to stop the clean energy revolution isn’t just for rich, liberal NIMBYs. A fight over a Rivian plant in Georgia has all that and more, including a George Soros conspiracy theory. (Sigh.)

— Lisa Martine Jenkins


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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to See you Thursday!

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