Three takeaways from Amazon’s new carbon neutralization plan

Companies across the globe are responding to the urgent call for climate action by pledging to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, if not sooner. More importantly, businesses are increasingly setting goals that go beyond their operational footprint to encompass their value chains. Given that supply chain emissions are more than five times greater than a company’s direct emissions, this is a vital trend.

Yet before we celebrate a sea change in some business leaders’ attitude and ambition on climate, here’s a reality check: Most companies are still struggling to get started and to deliver near-term actions to meet their aspirational goals.

One reason for this standstill is that the world of “net zero” is messy. Crowded. Overwhelming. Opaque. With the left hand often fighting the right, we’re missing the big picture and the bottom line: What we need most right now is collaboration and action. We don’t have the luxury of time to waste.

That’s why Amazon’s new carbon neutralization paper is a breath of fresh air. It provides clarity and perspective on what’s needed to reduce emissions fast and at scale. By presenting concrete next steps in the net-zero conversation, the paper can help companies move beyond infighting and stay focused on the North Star of driving lasting climate progress across the private sector.

Here are the highlights – and a look at what else is needed to deliver on a net-zero future.

  1. Acting fast on forests helps climate stability

The science says we must reduce pollution by 50% in the next 10 years. For the private sector, this means transforming business systems and pressing forward immediately to decarbonize operations and supply chains.

Forthcoming research from EDF and Deloitte also notes that most pathways to net zero by 2050 will require unprecedented private sector investment in protecting tropical forests, and in developing and deploying new technologies.

Outside of companies’ own footprints, including their supply chains, one of the most impactful opportunities lies in protecting our forests – without which the planet cannot reach a climate-stable future.

In practice, this means supporting jurisdictional approaches to reduce deforestation and enable the scale of change that is needed. Scale and the ability to drive systemic change are also critical for the integrity and durability of emissions reductions. Not all carbon credits are created equal, but companies can purchase high-quality, verified forest carbon credits through organizations like Emergent, a nonprofit that facilitates access to high-quality, jurisdictional-scale REDD+ tropical forest carbon credits. 

One example of the scale of investment needed is the LEAF initiative, which Amazon helped bring alive.  It shows how collaboration between governments and the private sector can drive investment in high-integrity projects to limit tropical deforestation. 

  1. Ensuring the quality of carbon credits is crucial

While companies design and implement net zero strategies, many are looking to make immediate and meaningful progress on their climate change commitments through carbon credits.

Carbon credits – sometimes referred to as offsets – allow companies to reduce emissions in the near- term while they implement essential longer-term strategies to address their operational footprint. Investing in carbon markets is critical to reaching net zero, but navigating their complexities is hard.

One of the biggest challenges is determining which offsets are high-quality.

According to Amazon’s new paper: “A carbon credit is high quality if it is additional, quantifiable, real, permanent, and socially beneficial. A credit must result in a durable and conservatively estimated emission reduction or carbon removal that would not otherwise occur…”

We agree with these important points. We also know that low-income communities bear the greatest impacts of climate change. Just this week, a new Environmental Protection Agency report found that “Racial minorities in the United States will bear a disproportionate burden of the negative health and environmental impacts from a warming planet.”

Companies have to take equity impacts seriously in the implementation and achievement of net zero goals. That’s why it’s critical to ensure that revenue is used to address impacts on local communities and that complementary policies are in place to enable the conditions needed to achieve effective, just, and sustainable solutions for people of all genders and races. 

Working within critical guardrails, high-quality carbon credits can have a big impact. Carbon market mechanisms contribute much-needed private sector investment in developing countries, help set a sustainable growth path, and contribute to the wellbeing of Indigenous communities.

  1. The hardest work still lies ahead

Amazon, a critical player in the race to net zero, is taking important first steps on the long path toward decarbonization with its industry-leading efforts to help consumers purchase sustainable products, and increasing use of renewable energy to power 100% of company activities by 2025. Nonetheless, Amazon – and all companies – must do more, including using one of the most powerful tools that companies have to fight climate change: their political influence.

Silence and inaction on climate are no longer acceptable. Now is the time for the private sector to step up on climate, taking action to reduce emissions – fast.

Elizabeth Sturcken, Managing Director, EDF+Business