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Amazon has yet to reveal its climate footprint. Activists say it's massive

How big is Amazon’s carbon footprint?
  •  Amazon's package deliveries in 2017 alone emitted about 19 million metric tons of carbon, according to one estimate. "That's just under five coal power plants," one expert said.
  • Amazon's cloud computing business is supported by more than 50 data centers across the world. Each center consumes about as much power as a small town, according to estimates.  
  • Amazon's influence over the retail sector suggests that, if it makes meaningful steps to sustainability, many smaller companies that are suppliers and customers would have to follow.   

Amazon shareholders this week defeated a proposal to wean the company off fossil fuels. But the proposal raised a long-debated question: How much climate pollution does Amazon create, anyway?

Unlike most of its peers, Amazon keeps its carbon footprint figures hidden. In February, the company promised to disclose its carbon emissions figures this year, although it declined last week to elaborate on its timeline to CBS News.

Environmental groups, however, say Amazon's impact is significant, thanks to the company's enormous size and complexity. Amazon is the U.S.' fifth-largest company, with significant operations in retail, logistics, entertainment and cloud computing. And it's this last line of business that, activists say, is Amazon's most polluting.

Not just the shipping

Say "Amazon," and most people think of packages shipped to your doorstep, locker or car trunk. But even though Amazon is building out its own delivery fleet, it still has a long way to go before it reaches the size of UPS or FedEx.

Amazon Web Services, on the other hand, is the biggest cloud-computing provider in America. It has over a million customers, ranging from small businesses to the likes of Verizon, Neflix and Unilever. The CIA is even a cloud customer. It's also one of Amazon's fastest-growing divisions, along with three other segments that also heavily rely on computing power: third-party sales, advertising and the subscription services around Amazon Prime, said RJ Hottovy, retail sector strategist at Morningstar.

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AWS is supported by more than 50 data centers across the world, according to a Greenpeace report earlier this year on the data industry. Each of those centers consumes about as much power as a small town, Gary Cook, senior IT sector analyst for Greenpeace, told CBS News recently.

"From a carbon footprint, data centers are super energy intensive," Cook said. "Electricity demand in the U.S. is declining, but data centers are a big growth market."

Why so much growth? It turns out that internet use, and especially the media-rich internet that many Americans are used to today, consumes a great deal of power. Every video call, text message or "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" episode has to live on a server somewhere. That all adds up: A study last year of the information and communication industry found that the sector emits as much carbon as flying. 

While some of these data centers are powered by wind or solar farms, nearly half still run on fossil fuels, according to Amazon's figures. Amazon's heavy presence in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., is particularly polluting, according to Greenpeace. Amazon is the largest private utility customer in an area where much of the electricity still comes from natural gas and coal—the dirtiest fuel. Just 12% of AWS' power in Virginia comes from clean energy, Greenpeace said.

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Special delivery

In addition to moving data, Amazon, of course, moves billions of goods—at an unknown cost to the environment. Here, again, Amazon's size works against it. Since it is both a retailer and, for some products, the delivery mechanism, its emissions for those items would be higher than, say, Target or UPS, environmentalists say.

In 2017, Amazon's deliveries alone emitted about 19 million metric tons of carbon, according to an estimate from 350 Seattle, a group that works to climate heating. "That's just under five coal power plants," said Rebecca Deutsch, a former tech worker who is now the Amazon campaign coordinator for 350 Seattle. That same year, FedEx was responsible for 14 million tons, and UPS for 13 million, according to CDP, a nonprofit that helps companies track emissions data.

Amazon's recent decision to make one-day shipping the default for its Prime members is likely to increase its emissions ever further. The reason, according to logistics experts, has to do with how shopping behavior is different online from in-person.

In-person shopping, especially in a suburban environment that requires lots of driving, usually creates a lot of emissions, Anne Goodchild, founding director of the University of Washington's Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center, recently told CBS News. "Delivery services can be better — they can put lots of stuff in one vehicle, do one delivery route, and hit lots of homes," she said. 

But while that model prevailed in the early days of online shopping, today it's reversed, with very small and fast deliveries—what she calls "paid butler services"—growing the fastest. That model "is definitely worse, and there are other compounding factors—you don't make a list for your shopping anymore, you just buy stuff online as you think of it and it's delivered in five or six deliveries," she said.

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Chain reaction

However big Amazon's own carbon footprint is, its biggest impact could be on the companies around it—its suppliers and contractors.

"Amazon's company-wide carbon footprint is actually only the tip of the iceberg," Dexter Galvin, global director of corporations and supply chains at CDP, said in an email. "On average, companies in the retail sector report having supply chain greenhouse gas emissions that are 10.9 times greater than their own direct" emissions, he said.

That's both a liability and an opportunity, environmental advocates say. Amazon's influence in the markets mean that, if it makes meaningful steps to sustainability, many smaller companies would follow. 

Said Cook, "If companies are feeling like being responsible they can chart a different path. A lot of them have."