Dear EarthTalk: Apple just put out a big PR campaign about its sustainability initiatives. Has the company made real progress in this regard or is this just more corporate “greenwashing?” And how are the other big tech companies addressing their carbon footprints? — Billy A., Oakland, CA
Long criticized for its lack of commitment to sustainability—from supporting the dangerous mining of precious resources and exploiting factory workers to powering its data centers with energy derived from coal and not taking back products for recycling — Apple has really worked on turning things around over the past couple of years. Indeed, just this past month the company announced that 94 percent of its corporate facilities and 100 percent of its data centers now operate on power from renewable sources.
Environmentalists first took notice that serious change was afoot at Apple in May 2013 when the company brought in former Obama Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson to head its corporate environmental initiative. Since then, the company has unveiled plans showing how its new corporate headquarters — currently under construction in Cupertino, California—will use 30 percent less energy than an equivalent conventional building while playing host to some 7,000 carbon-sequestering trees.
Apple also reports that it has decreased the material required to produce its iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs. A new iPad Air, for instance, uses a third less material overall by weight than the original iPad. And all of the company’s retail stores will now take back any Apple products for free recycling — U.S. and U.K. consumers can even earn gift cards for turning in old iPhones, iPads and computers.
Of course, Apple still has work to do. The nonprofit Friends of the Earth has been on the company’s case to agree to a plan that will reign in the human and environmental toll of destructive tin mining in Indonesia and elsewhere. Tin is a major component of the solder in
smart phones and other electronics and the popularity of such items has pushed miners to extremes and is linked to the destruction of tropical rainforests, coral reefs and commercial fisheries. Apple sent a team of investigators to the Indonesian islands responsible for producing some 30 percent of the world’s commercially available tin, but the company has yet to commit to any changes in the way it sources this increasingly valuable raw material.
As for other tech/Internet companies, Greenpeace has been assessing and tracking environmental performance of the big players for more than a decade. “The Internet we love, and the companies that run it are at a crossroads in terms of where their energy comes from,” reports the group. “Many of these companies have already chosen the road to a green internet and a sustainable future.” Some of the best performers besides Apple include Facebook, Google, Salesforce, Rackspace and Box, each of which has committed to 100 percent renewable energy.
Greenpeace isn’t as bullish on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Amazon, each of which relies heavily on coal-fired power sources for their data centers and other operations, but still says. “If Amazon and others want to stay innovative and relevant, it’s high time they made the switch to the abundant, sustainable, renewable energy of today.”
Concerned consumers can sign Greenpeace’s online #ClickClean petition asking these big players to step up and commit to renewable energy and environmentally responsible operations.
* * * * *
Dear EarthTalk: If “cap and trade” has worked so well in Europe for reducing greenhouse gas emissions there, why haven’t we tried something similar here in the U.S.? — Sandra M., Bern, NC
“Cap-and-trade,” whereby big polluters must pay to emit greenhouse gases against a capped total amount that is reduced over time — has been in effect across the European Union (EU) since 2005. This so-called Emissions Trading System (ETS) requires 11,000 of the largest electric and industrial facilities in 28 European countries to participate. Some 45 percent of Europe’s total greenhouse gas emissions are regulated under the system. Proponents say the ETS has succeeded in keeping greenhouse gas emissions in check and making Europe a global leader on climate. The EU reports that, by 2020, emissions from sectors covered by ETS will be 21 percent lower than they were in 2005 and 43 percent lower by 2030.
But critics argue that Europe’s reduced emissions may be more due to the global recession than the ETS, and that the cheap availability of allowances has made it easier for companies to pay to burn coal than to switch to cleaner natural gas or invest more in carbon mitigation
technologies. Early in 2014 the EU tightened up its system by cutting the number of new allowances it plans to issue over the next three years by a third while simultaneously creating a “market reserve” to absorb extra allowances as needed.
Meanwhile, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Kazakhstan and South Korea have each set up their own national cap-and-trade programs to varying degrees of success, while regional versions have popped up within Japan, Canada and the U.S.
As to the U.S., whether or not to establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system here has been a hot topic of discussion in Congress. It last came up for a vote in 2010, but never found enough bi-partisan support to become the law of the land. But in lieu of any federal system, two U.S. regions have undertaken their own attempts at ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions through market mechanisms:
In 2009, 10 Northeastern states came together to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade system with the goal of reducing regional carbon emissions from the power sector 10 percent from 2009 levels by 2018. Lower emissions than expected over the first five years of the program — thanks to many utilities switching over to cleaner burning and increasingly cheaper natural gas as well as less overall economic output due to the recession — led RGGI to lower its overall annual cap from 165 million to 91 million tons in 2014, with a 2.5 percent reduction every year thereafter until 2020. Analysts expect this rejiggering will drive the price of polluting five times higher than it has been and thus force utilities across the region to seek cleaner, greener alternatives to coal as an electricity
The other major U.S. cap-and-trade player is California, which launched its own ETS in 2013 with a cap set initially at two percent below 2012 emission levels. The cap will then be reduced three percent a year from 2015-2020. Some 600 facilities are big enough polluters to
qualify for participation in the system, which will cover around 85 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Given that California in and of itself is the 12th largest economy in the world, its forward-thinking commitment to cap-and-trade gives hope everywhere to fans of marshalling market forces to bring about environmental change.
* * * * *