Are corporates using wind for greenwashing?

There’s no doubt that growing corporate interest in the wind industry is a good thing. We commonly see this in the form of corporate power purchase agreements.


June 3, 2019

There’s no doubt that growing corporate interest in the wind industry is a good thing. We commonly see this in the form of corporate power purchase agreements.

These PPAs are enabling developers and investors to take their projects to financial close. This is proving vital in an era when governments are reducing support for the wind sector, and where firms want certainty as they struggle with tighter profit margins. Corporate buyers may drive a hard bargain, but at least they give certainty.

But a story in the past couple of weeks has given us a horrible thought. Hey, hold on. Are some of these corporates using wind farms for greenwashing? How dare they?!

The story is the one about the group of 7,700 Amazon employees that forced the online retailer to put an ambitious climate plan on the agenda of its annual general meeting in Seattle on 22 May. The activist employees want the company to publish a report detailing how it plans to manage its climate risks and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. These fuels still power a lot of its data centres and home deliveries.

The company initially resisted the proposal, which was first raised two months ago. The firm said that its environmental credentials are shown by the investments that it has been making in wind and solar power, and the steps it has been taking to cut the amount of packaging it sends to customers. But, for its employees, that isn’t enough.

Amazon has since committed to go net zero in terms of carbon emissions on half of its customer deliveries by 2030. This commitment – Shipment Zero – sounds good, although exactly how you go net zero on half of your orders I’m not sure. It sounds a lot like saying I’m a non-smoker, but only in the time I’m not with my wife and kids.

In the end, around 50 members of the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice attended the general meeting to support their proposal but the company’s shareholders voted against the group’s request. The board agreed on the importance of a plan to fight climate change but said Amazon is “already doing this”, and rejected the proposal.

In addition – and to the employees’ great disappointment – Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos completely ignored them. “Jeff remained off-stage, ignored the employees and would not speak to them,” the group said in a statement after the meeting. This is the guy who stood on a wind turbine in 2017 and smashed a bottle of Champagne on it. Is he serious?

There’s a growing mood among the public that more needs to be done to get to net zero. Extinction Rebellion, school strikes and activist employee groups are all parts of the same trend that will put more pressure on companies to take strong action on the climate change, and will need to offset all emissions from their businesses. Companies can’t just ignore this.

Big corporates won’t be able to hide behind the handful of PPAs they sign for wind and solar power. While wind is good, and must be better than its dirty rivals, there needs to be a bigger focus on the other environmental credentials of firms that are signing these deals. PPAs alone aren’t enough.

This is also set to have knock-on effects on wind farm operators. These companies must be ready for tough questions about the greenness of the projects where the corporates buy their electricity and their own operations. These demands will only grow as the public gets more aware, and as the anti-wind press looks to scream about hypocrisy.

So will we see corporates using wind for greenwashing? Well, as much as it pains us to say it, yes. There’s no doubt that buying wind power is better environmentally than propping up fossil fuels, so we can’t criticise that. But we also shouldn’t back away if we need to criticise the corporates that want to make it look like buying wind power is enough, and ignore public requests to do more. That just isn’t the case.

We believe that most people in this sector want to help the planet beyond their own projects and, to do that, they will be looking to support businesses to get to net zero as quickly as possible. That applies to themselves and their customers.

That will sometimes mean hard truths – for ourselves and our customers.

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