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Cooperation is crucial to private-sector decarbonization, says Amazon sustainability head

Feb 22, 2021
Precourt Institute

By Kate Gibson

To decarbonize their operations, companies will need to work with others within and beyond the private sector to adopt an integrated, whole-systems approach to sustainability.

Amazon is bringing this collective attitude to its efforts to fight climate change, said Kara Hurst, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide sustainability. In a wide-ranging Stanford University Global Energy Dialogues session on Jan. 27, Hurst discussed how Amazon is transforming its business and partnering with other corporations to meet its Climate Pledge.  She also talked about opportunities for Amazon to go beyond the private sector to work with academic researchers and governments. 

Amazon invited other companies to join its pledge “because one of the biggest things we know that we need is truly a transformation of systems, a transformation of industries,” said Hurst.  “We need to be sending those very strong signals collectively that we have a demand for products and services that will help us to decarbonize.”

Amazon committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions across its business by 2040. Thirty other companies – including Microsoft, Unilever, Verizon, Uber, JetBlue and a Spanish soccer team – have joined Amazon in the pledge. Because the companies in the pledge have different needs, their path to net-zero will be different, said Hurst, but they have all committed to transformational decarbonization.

Decarbonizing Amazon

To better understand and map its carbon footprint, Amazon created what it calls its carbon system of record, which the company eventually hopes to share with other organizations.

“It measures the sources of carbon across our business and then enables us to provide that data at a very granular level” to each of Amazon’s business leads, said Hurst. The system shows business operators what they can do to decrease emissions and how those changes will impact the business, thereby integrating carbon into Amazon’s decision-making process.

“If you look across our carbon footprint, it's not a surprise that our transportation, our fulfillment networks, our operations are the biggest part,” said Hurst.

Amazon has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles and is exploring ways to make freight operations more sustainable. It is also working to decarbonize its data centers and warehouses.

The company has invested in sustainable building technologies, including carbon-sequestering cement, and is using them in their new construction. One of the best things Amazon can do in this area is deploy technologies, see how they do, and share the data back, said Hurst.

Amazon has also worked to reduce the packaging material it ships its products in.

“When you're in a physical store, the packaging is your advertising,” said Hurst.

The same is not true of online shopping, and Amazon has worked to eliminate plastic clamshells and twist ties in favor of recycled, easy-to-open packaging.  

To help customers make sustainable choices, Amazon now labels products as “Climate Pledge Friendly” to highlight products that meet sustainability standards and help preserve the natural world, according to Hurst.

“It's our responsibility to make this very easy for our customer,” she said.

The role of academia

Hurst was interviewed by Yi Cui, director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy; Sally Benson, professor of energy resources engineering; Rebecca Gerkin, master's student in energy resources engineering; and Victoria Wills, who is pursuing a joint master's degree in business and in environment and resources.

Cui, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering, asked Hurst how universities and companies like Amazon can work together to achieve shared sustainability goals. In particular, Cui is interested in the idea of a major effort using big data, AI and machine learning for whole energy system analysis, design and integration to achieve deep decarbonization.

"We're really excited about this space as well, and I think it's a phenomenal role for universities to play,” said Hurst.  “Climate is such a complex issue, finding ways to have those partnerships and come together and share data is so incredibly important,” said Hurst.

Improvements to sustainable materials is another area where researchers can make a difference, said Hurst. Current biodegradable materials don’t work well when exposed to heat in machinery, making them hard to produce with automation and at scale.

Hurst also cited new areas like hydrogen, where Amazon wants “to learn as much as we can, as fast as we can, about the best places to play and deploy.” The company has started to invest in hydrogen technology, including in Zero Avia, a sustainable aviation fuel.

Partnering with government

"We’ll cooperate with any government that wants to lean into combating climate change,” said Hurst, who added that it’s exciting to see the Biden administration come out strong on climate change and rejoin the Paris Agreement.

Companies like Amazon can play a key part on climate in “advancing technologies, deploying them, investing in them, creating demand,” but to do this they need an enabling policy environment, she said. Hurst cited accelerating the greening of the grid as an area of potential partnership with the public sector.

Asked her advice to students, Hurst said there are “a million opportunities for you to embed your sustainability knowledge and thinking in a variety of different roles.” She encouraged students to consider careers in areas like operations, product development and data center infrastructure.

When Amazon has people making a difference on sustainability throughout the company, “that is the best thing that can happen, I think, to Amazon,” she said.

All Global Energy Dialogues sessions are virtual and are free and open to the public. Please visit the Global Energy Dialogues website to register for future sessions.  

The Global Energy Dialogues are funded by the Stanford Global Energy Forum.