Back in 2015, leading U.S. corporations stepped up in support of President Barack Obama to invest in renewable energy as part of an organized effort leading to the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Two years later, the Trump administration struck a blow to climate action as it announced its intention to pull the U.S. out of the Agreement.
Nevertheless, a new report indicates that corporate climate activism has already helped to counterbalance the setback in national policy, leading to improved prospects for reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change regardless of who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The new climate action report comes from the organization America’s Pledge, in partnership with the We Are Still In coalition. Both organizations launched shortly after the Trump administration announced its intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement in July of 2017.
The two organizations have enlisted state and local governments, nonprofits, academic institutions and business leaders in a combined effort to achieve the Paris Agreement goals for reducing carbon emissions and limiting global warming.
In a December 2019 report, America’s Pledge calculated that this “bottom-up” approach could keep the U.S. on track to achieve its Paris Agreement commitment of up to 37 percent by 2030, even without a strong federal policy framework to support it.
However, the need for more urgent climate action has become fully apparent within the past several weeks, with hurricanes battering the Gulf coast and record-setting forest fires besieging the west coast.
The most recent America’s Pledge report provides some much-needed hope for success. Issued on Monday, the new report reaffirms that the action of non-federal entities has been successful in counterbalancing the “climate denial and obstruction from the White House.”
Adding a dose of reality to the optimism, the report comes with a caveat. It projects that the progress so far will enable the U.S. to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, as long as it is supported by strong federal policies.
That is quite a caveat, considering President Trump’s track record on climate action.
Somewhat ironically, President Trump doubled down on his anti-science approach to climate action just one day after America’s Pledge issued its new report during a trip to California. While holding a public discussion on the forest fire situation, he insisted that that the Earth will cool down, presumably on its own.
America’s Pledge and its members are not betting on that to happen.
The new report, titled We Are Still In to Deliver on America’s Pledge: A Retrospective, describes how the U.S. has reached an “irreversible tipping point in its clean energy transition, due to unprecedented, bold actions from U.S. state and local leaders, a pivotal shift in market forces, and overwhelming public demand,” all taking place despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak and economic downturn.
As evidence of progress during the Trump administration, the report notes that 33 percent of Americans live in a jurisdiction committed to 100 percent renewable energy. Just three years ago, only one state - Hawaii - and 33 cities had made such a commitment.
As for supportive federal policies, that depends on the results of the November 3 election. If there is a change of administrations, the report provides a roadmap for achieving a green COVID-19 recovery that includes “grid modernization, electric transit, zero-emissions buildings, end-of-life refrigerant disposal, and support for low-income and impacted communities.”
On the downside, the report emphasizes that the urgency of climate action has outrun the ability of non-federal entities to act in time to avert catastrophic impacts.
“Despite positive momentum and market signals, a massive, coordinated effort from both the federal government and non-federal entities is still needed to deploy clean solutions at the speed and scale necessary to achieve the targets that scientists have warned are necessary to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change,” the report states.
Nevertheless, some business leaders are determined to demonstrate that the private sector has the resources and know-how to make significant progress, by aiming beyond its own operations with a more holistic, carbon-negative approach.
Google became the latest company in the negative-carbon category on Monday, when CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the company will follow up on its track record of leadership on carbon neutrality and renewable energy by working toward “a carbon-free future for everyone.”
Pichai outlined four steps, including the immediate elimination of the company’s “carbon legacy” by purchasing carbon offsets.
“This means that Google's lifetime net carbon footprint is now zero. We’re pleased to be the first major company to get this done, today,” Pichai wrote, strongly implying that any other major corporation could easily take similar action today, if it so chose.
Another part of the plan is somewhat more complicated but is also doable with today’s technology. Instead of simply matching its annual electricity demand with renewable energy purchases, Google has set a goal of operating solely on renewables, globally and on a 24/7 basis, by 2030.
In laying out this step, Pichai also made the case for corporations to compete for customers and clients by meeting their expectations for clean power.
“Our data centers power the products and services you’ve come to rely on every day. This will mean every email you send through Gmail, every question you ask Google Search, every YouTube video you watch, and every route you take using Google Maps, is supplied by clean energy every hour of every day,” he wrote.
Pichai did appear to caution that “the right government policies” would need to be in place for Google to realize its 24/7-by-2030 goal.
However, he also indicated that Google would be deploying its buying power to prod policy makers in the right direction.
As described by Pichai, Google is planning to shepherd in 5 gigawatts worth of new clean power capacity in its key manufacturing regions by 2030, which the company anticipates will generate more than 8,000 clean energy jobs.
Google also plans to help a group of 500 cities reduce their carbon emissions by a total of 1 gigaton annually. As part of that effort, the company will expand its Environmental Insights Explorer carbon tracking tool from 100 participating cities to 3,000.
There is much more to the Google plan, and the upshot is that it puts tremendous pressure on other tech companies to leverage their existing resources and knowledge base in the service of urgent, holistic climate action.
In particular, Amazon should be feeling the heat for its continued support of the oil and gas industry through its Amazon Web Services branch, and for its reported attempts to tamp down on employees who criticize its climate policies.
The ripple effect could also have an impact on Facebook. The company has come under fire for enabling the dissemination of conspiracy theories related to climate change denialism while preventing legitimate climate scientists from sharing their research.
As Google has demonstrated, U.S. tech companies have the power to make a significant contribution to climate action without waiting around for the results of the November 3 election to roll in. All that is lacking is will power.
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Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.