Big Tech takes on climate change: a case for aligning words with action
Today’s tech giants have the potential to make significant strides in meeting our environmental and sustainability goals. But for this potential to be realized, Big Tech must do more than wordsmith statements. They must take meaningful action.

At a time when global attitudes toward Big Tech are shifting and a growing chorus of voices demands greater oversight of technology giants, it might seem surprising that many of these companies are asking for more regulation.

When it comes to climate change, this is exactly what’s unfolding.

In April, the infamously tight-lipped Apple was the first major public company to urge the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to mandate corporate climate disclosures. Later that month, Uber, HP and Salesforce backed the same call. What’s going on?

Moving toward creating shared value

There are a few reasons driving this shift, including both leadership and employee values and simple self-interest.

Ten years ago, Harvard business professor Michael Porter shrewdly hinted at why the answer might be a mix of the two: “Companies could bring business and society back together if they redefined their purpose as creating ‘shared value’—generating economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges. A shared value approach reconnects company success with social progress.”

According to Porter, tackling sustainability issues has evolved from a “nice-to-do” exercise in reputation management to a non-negotiable priority for long-term survival.

For Big Tech, the writing is on the wall: act on sustainability now, or risk being left behind.

Stepping up to lead on climate change

The urgency for these companies to act is amplified by the fact that they are also significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions.

A 2018 estimate placed the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem on par with the global aviation industry’s emissions from fuel (that’s pre-pandemic levels of air travel, of course).

One of the most alarming models predicts that electricity use by ICT could exceed a fifth of the global total by 2030.

Whether it’s sending emails, uploading photos or streaming videos, the everyday tasks we so take for granted consume increasingly more energy.

As demand for data increases, attention also turns to the role of data centres, the brains of the Internet that process, store and transfer the information we rely on.

With climate scientists calling for the halving of carbon emissions by 2030 (compared to 2010 levels) and “net zero” by 2050, any reasonable prospect of reaching our goals requires fast, far-reaching changes across virtually all sectors of society.

Big Tech, however, is uniquely poised to lead the way.

Well-funded and brimming with talent and innovation, the tech giants have both the ability and incentive to drive meaningful change.

With big power comes big pledges

Recently, many tech companies have stepped up to the plate by making bold climate commitments.

Early last year, Microsoft announced their goal to become carbon negative by 2030, as well as plans to launch a $1 billion climate innovation fund to accelerate the development of carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies.

Amazon has its sights on powering 100% of its activities with renewable energy by 2025—considerably ahead of its initial goal of 2030.

Recently, Facebook announced that its operations are now fully supported by renewable energy and have reached net zero emissions across its operations. By 2030, the social media company aims to also reach net zero emissions across its value chain.

Many tech giants are among a growing list of signatories on The Climate Pledge, a coalition of over 100 companies and organizations that have made net zero commitments by 2040 or sooner.

But as we’ve highlighted in a previous blog post, there’s a fine line between making purposeful, high-impact commitments and the risk of purpose-washing.

Calling out climate hypocrisy

Despite the recent flurry of climate commitments, some say it’s not enough, and that their activities elsewhere are undermining the very pledges they’ve made.

Last year, Greenpeace published a scathing report highlighting Microsoft, Google and Amazon’s problematic contracts with oil and gas companies, including their use of artificial intelligence technologies to find and extract oil and gas reserves and boost production of fossil fuels.

When an organization fails to credibly deliver on its purpose, it risks tarnishing its brand, and undermining the legitimacy of its other commitments. And in a low-trust, low-attention environment, the public is quick to point out when a company’s words do not match up with its actions.

In the face of mounting pressure from shareholders, activists and consumers, business must be willing to take bold stands in the fight against climate change, and lead with impactful action—or risk facing irrelevance and reputational harm.

The tech giants of today are among the most successful and innovative companies in history, capable, as they have demonstrated time and time again, of transforming entire industries and moving the lives of billions.

Unrivalled in their potential for drawing investment and innovation, tech companies are uniquely positioned to be both key drivers and beneficiaries of the low-carbon transition.

At Argyle, we help bridge the gap between industry, experts and governments when it comes to the environment, sustainability and climate change. We help leaders in technology and other sectors align their words with action, demonstrate accountability and earn trust.

About the Author

Aian is an Associate Consultant on Argyle’s Corporate and Public Affairs team. He specializes in Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change, and is also a member of Argyle’s Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) communications consulting team.

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