Apple’s Climate Plan Is Even More Interesting Than It Appears
Apple Inc. captured headlines last week for declaring it would be carbon neutral by 2030. The effusive global press coverage rightly pointed out the level of ambition on display from the company in pledging to hit such a target by the end of this decade. But all the stories I read missed some key numbers published in Apple’s sustainability report that make the plan a lot more interesting.
First, the $1.6 trillion company was responsible for 25.1 million metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019, roughly the same as in 2018 and the same as the annual climate pollution from island nations Cuba and Sri Lanka. Second, its own electricity needs are already entirely served by renewables, meaning that less than 1% of the company’s emissions are generated by its facilities or the plants powering those facilities. Apple’s new climate commitment, therefore, is almost entirely about its Scope 3 emissions, the category any company has the least amount of control over because they’re generated by suppliers and users.
About 15% of Apple’s emissions come from users powering Macs and charging iPhones in their homes and offices. The company can’t force the users to switch to carbon-free energy—at best, it can make the device energy-efficient so it consumes less power.
The largest chunk of the California-based company’s emissions come from manufacturing, which it outsources mostly to companies in Asia. Apple has promised to ensure that most of its largest suppliers will deploy energy efficiency measures and switch to 100% renewable energy within the decade. While renewable energy is getting cheaper, it’s still not easily accessible at scale in many countries. Apple has had to create an entire team dedicated simply to helping its suppliers plug into clean power, says Jonas Rooze, head of sustainability research at BloombergNEF.
But to become carbon neutral by 2030, the company has to go beyond just electricity. It has to source its materials in as low-carbon a way as possible, such as through recycling or new ways of making refined metals. It’s led Apple to push boundaries on manufacturing—by creating demand for carbon-free aluminum, for example. That was an industry first.
With all those moves, Apple says it will cut 75% of its emission by 2030 and then offset the remaining 25%. The company told me it recognizes the limitations of offsets such as reforestation, and will only use them where absolutely needed. It can’t stop emissions from its executives traveling by air or its users connecting to carbon-heavy girds.
The only other large company with a more ambitious climate goal is Microsoft, which plans to be carbon negative by 2030 and to erase the company’s historical emissions by 2050. The company will cut emissions and use offsets, but it will also invest in “negative-emissions technologies” such as direct air capture and enhanced rock weathering to help reach its goals.
While the two companies are each worth more than $1 trillion and were both founded on the U.S. west coast, Microsoft’s business is largely software-based, whereas Apple’s business is largely hardware-based. Apple said it won’t invest in negative-emissions technologies yet, but that it’s watching the space closely.
Though Apple’s climate plan is impressive, there’s still something missing. The company is sticking to its main business model of selling ever greater numbers of devices and providing money-making services on top.
The whole consumer-tech industry has been widely criticized for its “planned obsolescence” strategy, which makes users want a new device every few years. France even levied a fine on Apple earlier this year for knowingly slowing down older iPhones with software updates. According to a 2017 Greenpeace report, the greenest device-maker is Fairphone, which lets users repair and replace hardware on their own. Apple ranked second on the list. When I mentioned this, the company said it has begun a program that offers free training to repair shops to fix devices with Apple’s own hardware or even third-party hardware.
Consumers don’t just expect Apple’s products to be reliable. They want to be wowed every single time. The company’s newest climate plan is certainly radical, but there is room to improve.
“Apple is simply dealing with the consequences of its products without thinking holistically about design,” says Rooze. “If any company can think creatively about solving that problem, then it’s surely Apple.”
Akshat Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter on the intersection of climate science and emission-free tech. You can email him with feedback.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.