Despite all they're doing to address climate change with both emissions reduction plans, circular economy innovation and consumer awareness, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have been criticized — rightly so, in my mind — for their close ties to the oil and gas sector. All of them are using their artificial intelligence prowess and analytics power to help companies such as BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil continue exploration and extraction.
When I asked Microsoft Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa about this tension last year, he told me that changes won't happen overnight. "Any clear-eyed person recognizes that this happens over time," he said. "We will be relying on fossil fuels for some time."
Indeed, the relationship Microsoft disclosed last week with Shell is slightly different. Broadly focused on the fossil fuels company's digital transformation, the applications being built collaboratively by the two companies are aimed at measuring carbon emissions — both Shell's and those of its suppliers and customers. As part of its long-term strategy, Shell declared a net-zero emissions target by 2050 back in April.
But there's a lot more to the relationship. Microsoft will procure electricity from Shell's renewable energy portfolio as it works toward its 100 percent goal, and the two aspire to advance the use of sustainable aviation fuels.
“These complex challenges can’t be solved in isolation, or by doing business as usual,” said Judson Althoff, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Worldwide Commercial Business, in the blog about the deal. “We are proud to play our role in a sustainable future, and we know that a successful energy transition depends on strong technology partnerships anchored in co-innovation and development with leaders in the energy sector.”
These complex challenges can’t be solved in isolation, or by doing business as usual.
Climate action purists will probably argue that any relationship with an oil company is bad news, but this one seems a step in the right direction. Frankly, I'd love to see more alliances centered on using the power of cloud computing services to move an industry closer to business practices that mitigate the impact of climate change. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, another development I'm watching closely centers on how cloud services powered by Microsoft would help scale adoption of regenerative agriculture.
Another deal that has my attention is one between the Google cloud team and Unilever's supply chain organization. The two are working on an application that uses the tech company's AI and analytics power, combined with satellite imagery from the Google Earth Engine, to surface data about deforestation, water usage and biodiversity across the consumer products giant's suppliers.
The initial focus will be on deforestation, starting with sustainable palm oil — although other commodities will be added in the future. Unilever has committed to a "deforestation-free" supply chain by 2023. "The combination of these sustainability insights with our commercial sourcing information is a significant step-change in transparency, which is crucial to better protect and regenerate nature."
While I haven't heard Amazon tout any relationships at this scale, the company's sustainability data initiative is working with businesses that are using its cloud services to handle tasks such as solar irradiance forecasting and climate risk assessments.
One way that all three tech giants could counter their legacy relationships with the fossil fuels sector would be to work on more deals of this nature actively — ones that have the power to transform entire industries. I think it's pretty clear that the most positive impact that Amazon, Google and Microsoft can have on the climate movement is using their cloud computing might to transform and transition other businesses. We need to see more of this.