Earlier this month, the world’s top climate scientists reiterated that we are on a path to permanently change our planet, reporting that people on every continent are already feeling the impacts of global warming. If we are to preserve a safe, livable planet for future generations, we have precious few years to move beyond the polluting fossil fuels of the past, and toward a clean energy future.
To do that, we will need serious climate leadership not just from politicians, who have to shake themselves free of polluters’ influence and stand up for the people they claim to represent, but also from the CEOs of corporations that have an outsized influence over our energy systems.
On that front, there is good news to report. Greenpeace has been challenging the IT sector, which is experiencing rapid growth in its energy footprint, to break free of energy sources that are pushing the planet toward a tipping point. Our report released earlier this month, Clicking Clean, highlighted the dramatic shift that Apple has made to prioritize renewable energy as it continues its rapid growth. The report also highlighted the rapidly increasing gap between leaders like Apple and laggards like Amazon, who are growing seemingly without regard to the foundation of our offline world: our planet.
Yesterday, Apple and its CEO Tim Cook took its climate leadership further in a bold stand just in time for Earth Day. In a video on Apple’s homepage, Cook prominently linked Apple’s brand to the notion that innovation at Apple means not just building better products, but building them in a way that also protects the environment and addresses climate change.
Cook’s voice plays over the kinds of beautiful images we’ve come to expect from an Apple film, showing how the company builds things, improves them, tests them, always striving for something better, before transitioning into beautiful shots of the solar farms Apple is using to power its data centers. The drive to constantly improve defines many successful companies. But now, Cook says that Apple is thinking about this concept of better in more ambitious way: better has to be more sustainable too.
In the case of Apple’s growing energy footprint, better means sourcing the electricity that powers its data centers with 100 % renewable energy. Apple is not the only technology company that has set that ambitious goal. To their credit, Facebook, Google, Box, Salesforce and Rackspace are all aiming for 100 % renewable energy too, and are at varying stages of that journey. The CEO of any large company should do the same; committing to 100 % renewable energy is the new standard for any corporate leader who wants to help drive the solutions to global warming.
Cook’s ambition deserves extra attention though. Under his tenure as CEO, Apple has been the most aggressive and innovative of any company that’s set a 100 % goal, and according to Clicking Clean, is the only company currently achieving it, having tapped wind energy in California and Oregon, solar energy in North Carolina and Nevada, and sustainable micro-hydropower in Oregon.
While Apple is a powerful company, with incredible political, market, and cultural leverage to push the economy toward renewable energy, Cook can’t change our energy system by himself. In embracing renewable energy, he and Apple are taking on interests from polluting industries which will fight to their death to preserve the status quo. Cook confronted an emissary from those polluting industries directly last month at an Apple shareholders meeting, when he told a spokesperson from an Exxon-funded climate change denial group to get lost. While that particular group may not have been the toughest that the fossil fuel industry has to offer, it will not be the last. Cook and Apple would benefit from allies of similar stature. Someone like Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, would seem like a perfect fit – another innovator, one who has made a career out of finding inefficient, old economic systems, and disrupting them with more modern, forward-looking technologies. Our energy system begs for just such a change. Unfortunately, in the technology sector, Bezos stands out as the CEO falling furthest behind Cook’s leadership.
Amazon is lagging behind almost every major internet company for its energy use, choosing to accept status quo, polluting forms of power from coal, gas and nuclear plants. If Bezos were to follow in Cook’s footsteps, Amazon could no doubt quickly put its engineers and innovators on the case, and find new ways to power much of the internet with renewable energy, likely doing so at the same impressive pace that Apple has set. Unfortunately, Bezos has shown no signs of changing.
Other CEOs could follow Cook’s lead too, including outside of the tech sector. Renewable energy is booming in the US and around the world, becoming a cheaper, healthier and safer bet every day for companies in every part of the economy. IKEA recently announced an investment in wind energy in the US. Wal-Mart has made significant investments in solar panels to power its stores in the US. These companies represent the beginning of a trickle of corporations that know that renewable energy is, as Cook says so elegantly, simply better. If other CEOs follow Cook’s lead, that trickle can turn into something much bigger.
Apple still has plenty of work to do. The sprawling supply chain of all those iPads and iPhones creates a vast energy footprint in China that Apple has yet to address. Cook admits as much in the video: “We have a long way to go. And a lot to learn.”
But during a time when we desperately need corporate environmental leadership to address climate change, Cook’s decision to prominently link Apple’s identity to climate leadership is worth highlighting. If other CEOs follow his example, we may finally get the corporate leadership that we need to bring about a more sustainable economy, powered by renewable energy, and, as Cook said in his video, one that is simply better – for both people and the planet.
David Pomerantz is a media officer at Greenpeace USA.