Alexandra Tracy, Green Finance Advisor of Friends of the Earth (HK)

In the sustainability Olympics, big tech doesn’t usually score very high. Growing concerns about privacy and use of consumer data have been exacerbated by accusations of partisanship and censorship, with recent actions by some firms calling attention to how much control they have over social media and communications. This comes on top of years of controversy about how little tax many of these companies pay and whether this is fair.

Then there are the significant environmental impacts associated with the tech sector, from mining for key manufacturing inputs to disposing of unwanted devices. In 2019 alone, people discarded 53 million metric tons of electronic waste. Meanwhile, the exponential growth of energy use in data centres around the world, a rapidly expanding source of carbon emissions, highlights the need to address the industry’s contribution to the overall carbon footprint. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple together use as much power in a year as New Zealand!

Perhaps paradoxically, tech companies have announced some of the most ambitious climate targets in the world. Starting with Google in 2010, the big names have been signing large clean energy deals to power new data centres, and seem now to be looking to outdo each other in their green aspirations.

This can be seen also in the sizeable investment commitments that these companies have been announcing over the last year. In January 2020, Microsoft launched a Climate Innovation Fund, which will invest US$1 billion into accelerating existing climate solutions and creating new technologies. Later in the year, Amazon revealed its Climate Pledge Fund, a US$2 billion venture capital programme for sustainable technologies. This followed on the heels of the announcement by its founder, Jeff Bezos, of his Earth Fund, which he will kick off with US$10 billion.

Most recently, Apple has just announced a US$200 million fund dedicated to supporting nature based solutions to climate and environmental challenges. Its Restore Fund, a joint venture with Conservation International, will invest in forestry projects that aim to reduce carbon emissions and restore biodiversity. This is important to the company’s efforts to meet its pledge of carbon neutrality by 2030, as more sustainable management of forests will sequester carbon from the atmosphere which can offset part of Apple’s carbon footprint. 

While commentators may be sceptical about some of the motivations behind these plans – and, indeed, raise questions about carbon offsetting by large corporates – any initiatives that will mobilise capital into those areas where it is most needed should be welcomed.  Apple is open about the fact that one of the additional aims of the Restore Fund is to make a financial return on sustainable timber production. We need more interventions like this to demonstrate to the market that you can successfully address carbon challenges and make money at the same time.

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