Amazon touts Climate Pledge Arena, but what about its massive cargo shipping footprint?

The grand opening of Amazon’s Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle comes on the heels of a major climate commitment by the company to finally address its cargo shipping pollution. But that commitment has environmental advocates asking — why so little, so late?

Activists marched to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters in August 2021 to deliver a petition signed by 20,000 people calling on the company to switch to zero-emissions cargo ships by 2030. Photo credit: Stand.earth

By Kendra Ulrich, Shipping Campaigns Director, Stand.earth

The grand opening celebration of Amazon’s Climate Pledge Arena comes on the heels of another major climate announcement made by the company recently, to finally address an important source of its climate pollution from transoceanic cargo shipping.

The Climate Pledge Arena’s zero-carbon certification may be all the talk of the town, but in terms of overall benefit to the climate, Amazon’s new commitment to move their products off of fossil-fueled maritime cargo ships by 2040 far outweighs any benefits Climate Pledge Arena will provide.

And while Amazon’s pledge on zero-emissions shipping should certainly be lauded as industry leading, it also has many environmental advocates asking — why so little, so late?

The world simply doesn’t have 19 years to wait for massive polluting companies like Amazon to address major sources of pollution like their shipping footprints.

A cargo ship stacked with containers of consumer goods waits outside a port to be unloaded. Photo credit: Galen Crout via Unsplash

Hidden toll on the climate

Take a second and look around your home. Your furniture, clothes, devices — many, if not all, of those items made a trip on a cargo ship before arriving at your doorstep. Right now, there are more than 50,000 cargo ships in operation around the world, carrying around 80 percent of global trade. Every single one of those ships runs on fossil fuels, but emissions-free shipping is on the horizon.

We need companies like Amazon to leverage their considerable power to make fossil-free shipping a reality this decade — not 19 years from now.

The market for transoceanic cargo shipping has grown over the past several decades, and the pandemic only accelerated the trend, with oceangoing cargo volumes projected to increase by as much as 130 percent in the coming decades. Despite this, the cargo shipping industry remains relatively unseen and unknown. And that’s a major red flag.

If asked, I’m guessing you could probably rattle off the names of delivery services like UPS, FedEx, and so on. But if you were asked to name a cargo shipping company, could you? Maybe your answer would be, “Well, there was that one cargo ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal…”

Major corporations know ocean shipping is a consumer blind spot, and use it to their advantage.

If the ways in which goods get delivered to homes are out of customers’ sights and minds, the climate and public health impacts of those deliveries are sailing under the radar, too.

Impacts to port communities

But people living in communities along the shipping routes of these cargo ships, as well as in major U.S. port communities like Seattle and Los Angeles, don’t feel that way. These communities have been dealing firsthand with the disproportionate pollution impacts from cargo ships for decades.

A report released in July by the Ship It Zero coalition revealed that just fifteen companies — including Amazon, IKEA, Target, and Walmart — are responsible for emitting millions of tons of pollution from importing their goods into the United States on fossil-fueled ships. It is the first known study of its kind to quantify the environmental and public health impacts from some of America’s biggest retailers and their reliance on fossil-fueled, transoceanic shipping.

This makes Amazon’s new commitment all the more important. It’s a necessary first step that sets the bar for ways major corporations can address their cargo shipping footprints. But it simply isn’t fast enough.

Activists including this 11-year-old marched to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters in August 2021 to deliver a petition signed by 20,000 people calling on the company to switch to zero-emissions cargo ships by 2030. Photo credit: Stand.earth

Amazon’s new cargo shipping commitment smacks of ignorance for a problem the company has long known it needs to address. Simply put: 2040 is essentially two decades away. And as my colleague’s 11-year-old said recently, when delivering a petition to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, he’ll be 30 years old by the time this transition happens.

Our youth, our planet, and our port communities suffering the impacts of fossil-fueled ships just don’t have that long to wait.

Amazon’s Climate Pledge Arena is an industry-leading model for the ways green infrastructure can be built. But we can’t allow flashy projects to let Amazon off the hook for its overall climate impact. If Amazon truly wants to meet the scale of the climate challenge at hand, we need the smartest and brightest leaders at major companies like Amazon to meet this commitment a decade early.

Solutions to zero-emissions cargo shipping are out there. Let’s get Amazon to Ship It Zero by 2030. Because our climate and our communities can’t wait.

Led by environmental advocacy groups Stand.earth and Pacific Environment, the Ship It Zero coalition is calling on some of the nation’s largest maritime importers — including Amazon, Target, IKEA, and Walmart — to transition to 100% zero-emissions cargo shipping vessels by 2030. This ​​goal will ensure the shipping industry does its fair share in helping to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target scientists say is needed to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Learn more at www.shipitzero.org.

Stand.earth is an international nonprofit environmental organization with offices in Canada and the United States that is known for its groundbreaking research and successful corporate and citizens engagement campaigns to create new policies and industry standards in protecting forests, advocating the rights of indigenous peoples and protecting the climate. Visit us at www.stand.earth and follow us on Twitter @standearth.

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