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The yin and yang of Big Tech and climate

Illustration of a globe
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The relationship between tech giants, energy and climate is pretty complicated, and 2 new developments offer fresh examples of why.

Driving the news: This morning Apple announced a huge expansion in the number of suppliers who will meet the energy needs for their Apple-related production with renewables.

Why it matters: The role of outside suppliers is crucial because manufacturing makes up three-fourths of Apple's carbon footprint.

  • By the numbers: Per Apple, 44 suppliers — the iPhone-maker Foxconn among them — have now made the renewables pledge, roughly doubling the current number.
  • Apple said it will far exceed its goal of bringing 4 gigawatts of renewables into its supply chain by 2020.
  • Flashback: The company announced a year ago that now completely meets the energy needs for its own facilities with renewables.

The intrigue: The news comes a day after 3,500 employees of another tech giant — Amazon — issued an open letter calling for much tougher steps on climate and management support for a shareholder resolution on the matter.

Where it stands: The employees want firmer and more aggressive carbon-cutting goals and targets.

  • The letter notes that Amazon hasn't set a deadline to meet its pledge to run operations wholly on renewables, and calls the "Shipment Zero" initiative for addressing transportation too weak.
  • It also asks Amazon to abandon a business line of cloud computing services for oil-and-gas companies that help them optimize production.

My thought bubble: Big Tech's place in the fight against climate change defies easy labels.

  • Facebook, Apple, Google and others are pioneering players driving growth in corporate renewable power procurement and making sustainability commitments.
  • And those three, as well as Amazon, Microsoft and others, are all signatories to the "We Are Still In" pledge on the Paris Climate Agreement.

But, but, but: The companies also have big carbon footprints from powering data centers, manufacturing, encouraging consumption and, in Amazon’s case, lots of fossil fuel-powered deliveries.

Plus, Amazon isn’t the only company in Big Tech working with the oil and gas industry to enhance their extraction operations.

  • In late February, ExxonMobil announced a partnership with Microsoft in cloud technology and data aimed at helping boost production in the Permian Basin region.
  • A recent story in Gizmodo, which is cited in the Amazon workers’ letter, delves into services Google, Amazon and other tech firms provide oil companies.

What they're saying: Amazon defended its wide constellation of climate and clean energy programs.

  • "Amazon’s sustainability team is using a science-based approach to develop data and strategies to ensure a rigorous approach to our sustainability work," Amazon said.
  • They cite efforts including Shipment Zero, which aims to make 50% of deliveries with net-zero emissions by 2030, and a boost in their renewables procurement via 3 new wind farms announced this week.