The fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic makes it easy to forget about that other massive global emergency hanging over our heads: the climate crisis. And yet, scientists, scholars, and other Big Thinkers are quick to point out that the pandemic and the climate crisis—along with severe social inequalities—are intimately linked.
Big Tech companies are also fully aware of this, as the hastening growth of the technology sector has exposed its massive carbon footprint, resource-hungry data centers, and not-very-repairable products. In an attempt to counteract some of this impact, Apple announced today that it’s upping its climate pledge. The company revealed a plan to become carbon-neutral across its entire business, including manufacturing, by 2030. It also announced a new recycling robot, one that will extract rare-earth metals from one of the most fragile systems in the iPhone.
With this new pledge, Apple is following in the footsteps of Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, all of which have introduced revised climate-related goals within the past year. “We’re really proud of what we’ve done so far, but we also know that the moment we’re in calls us to meet this generational challenge of climate change, and to accelerate industry-wide change, to show what’s possible,” says Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives, and a former administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
It remains to be seen how much of Cupertino’s plan will actually be workable by 2030, and how much of it will be viewed in the future as a savvy public relations stunt. The public commitments made by Apple and other companies sometimes read like a jumble of climate-related buzzwords. Such language is difficult to decipher without knowing exactly how these companies plan to neutralize or reduce the usage of dirty energy in their manufacturing or shipping processes. And in a group interview with journalists last week, Jackson offered boilerplate responses to questions about some of the practices Apple has been criticized for in the past, like designing hard-to-fix products and tightly controlling device repairs. Jackson emphasized durability instead, saying “The best repair is when you don’t need to have a repair at all.”
But Apple’s new 10-year road map is still a huge step in the right direction, says Elizabeth Jardim, senior corporate campaigner for Greenpeace USA. “Even before our current administration in the US, the tech sector was sort of a first mover in figuring out how to address its corporate environmental footprint,” Jardim says. “Now we’re seeing all of the big tech companies re-up their climate commitments. I think it’s a kind of recognition that their previous goals haven’t done enough to address climate change. But also, it can’t be these companies alone that put high-impact strategies in place.”
Back in the spring of 2018, Apple announced that its corporate offices, data centers, and retail stores were running on 100 percent renewable energy. Now, Jackson says, the company plans to have a net zero carbon footprint across its entire business, the lifecycle of its products, and its manufacturing supply chain by 2030.
It’s a big initiative, considering how many millions of products Apple produces each year and that the overwhelming majority of the carbon emissions tied to the company come from its suppliers and manufacturers in China. With this new pledge, Apple says 75 percent of its efforts are focused on areas like renewable energy and manufacturing efficiencies, while 25 percent of its efforts are being dedicated to carbon removal through partnerships with forest conservation groups.
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Apple’s close relationship with and influence over its many suppliers might be the most impactful. The iPhone maker said that it now has commitments from more than 70 suppliers to use 100 percent renewable energy for Apple manufacturing—which, if achieved, would be the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off the road each year, avoiding 14.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. The company has also partnered with the US-China Green Fund, a private equity fund, and will commit $100 million in energy-efficiency projects on the supply side.