Connect with us


How Amazon’s offsets could exaggerate its progress toward “net zero” emissions



In April, Amazon announced it would contribute $10 million to a pair of projects designed to pay forest owners across the Appalachian Mountains to manage their lands in ways that capture more carbon dioxide from the air.

It is one of the first investments in the retail giant’s $100 million Right Now Climate Fund, an initiative to support the use of “nature-based climate solutions” like forests, grasslands, and wetlands to absorb more of the greenhouse gas. Amazon launched it last year in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, a conservation nonprofit, as part of its effort to reach “net zero carbon” by 2040. Together, they’re developing ways Amazon and other companies can effectively pay others to prevent or remove enough emissions to counterbalance those from their own operations.

But offsets researchers reviewed one of the proposals for the forests in the eastern US on behalf of MIT Technology Review and warned it may significantly overstate carbon reductions. Moreover, studies and articles have repeatedly highlighted similar problems with other offset programs designed to incentivize additional carbon uptake through things like trees and soil.

That’s raising real concerns as a growing list of large companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, and even oil and gas giants like Shell, trumpet “net zero emissions” plans that will rely heavily on nature-based offsets to theoretically cancel out their continuing climate pollution.

Lowering landowner costs

Trees suck carbon out of the air through photosynthesis and store it in their trunks, leaves, roots, and branches. Healthy forests with larger trees generally capture more carbon than overpacked forests, where smaller trees and other vegetation compete for water, sunlight, and space. When trees fall down and rot, or are cut down and converted into products like paper, much of the carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

The Nature Conservancy partnered with the American Forest Foundation to create a new offset protocol designed to allow owners of small tracts of wooded land to earn credits for taking steps to suck up and store more carbon.

The Family Forest Impact Foundation, an affiliate of the American Forest Foundation, will pay the landowners for carrying out two practices: promoting the growth of larger trees by harvesting less than previously planned, and thinning out competing shrubs and other vegetation. The change in practices must persist for 20 and 10 years, respectively.

The Family Forest Impact Foundation will, in turn, sell credits for the additional carbon that builds up on the properties to companies like Amazon on voluntary offset markets.

Family landowners largely haven’t participated in such markets up to now because complying with the programs can be complicated and expensive.

“Existing carbon forest markets weren’t working for small landowners,” says Christine Cadigan, director of the Family Forest Carbon Program at the American Forest Foundation. By easing some of the most cumbersome requirements, the groups believe they can reduce the costs by 75%, she says.

The organizations are working with Verra, a nonprofit that accredits offset protocols, to “review and validate” the approach. In the second Amazon-funded effort, known as Forest Carbon Co-ops, the Nature Conservancy is collaborating with the Vermont Land Trust to develop a similar program for owners of wooded lands ranging in area from 200 to 2,000 acres.

Amazon said the two programs together will draw down or prevent the release of 18.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2031. The company didn’t respond to inquiries from MIT Technology Review before press time.

Over counting carbon reductions

Several outside researchers who have looked at the proposal, however, fear there are a few ways the program could overestimate the carbon reductions actually achieved.

The biggest red flag for Barbara Haya, a research fellow at the Center for Environmental Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is how the program deals with what’s known as “leakage.” This occurs when reduced timber harvests brought about by offset projects simply lead to increased harvesting elsewhere.

Haya says some earlier research suggests that more than 80% of such reductions can simply shift to harvesting on timberlands in neighboring regions or even other nations. But under the rules for the reduced harvesting practice, landowners would generally only need to account for a 10% leakage rate in their calculations.

This suggests that even if the family forest projects do draw down significant additional carbon, much of the benefit could be wiped out by larger harvests elsewhere, limiting the real-world climate benefits.

Some observers also worry about how the projects will be audited to ensure compliance.

One of the key ways the program promises to make participation less expensive is by eliminating the need for surveyors to come out and conduct detailed assessments of every project site.

Instead, the program will use an aggregation of sample plots in similar forests to figure out what would be expected to happen on the project land in the absence of the program, given common forestry practices in the region. They’ll then compare those figures with field measurements of additional stored carbon over time from a “statistically significant random sample of properties” enrolled in the program, to determine how much more carbon the practices should be saving or removing.

This approach may produce an accurate accounting over time, says Grayson Badgley, a plant physiologist at Black Rock Forest and Columbia University. But he says it will be tricky to ensure that all the assumptions are correct, and that they properly select and weight plots to reflect conditions and land management practices on the enrolled projects.

One risk that is that the forestry practices assumed to be common in the area could be more representative of large timber companies than family landowners. That would exaggerate the amount of harvesting that would have occurred in the program’s absence, thus overstating the carbon gains it achieves.

Finally, there are additional concerns about whether the program will bank enough credits to account for setbacks that could occur if landowners simply increase harvesting at the end of the 10- or 20-year contract terms—or as a result of natural risks to trees like wildfires, storms, and insect infestations, all of which are rising with climate change.

In an email, Cadigan stressed that they’re still in the approval process and are working through various adjustments based on public comments and other feedback. But she also said they’re confident that their methodologies will bring about sustained improvement in forestry practices and accurately estimate additional carbon removal over time.

“Once they’ve reset their management, it actually makes more economic sense for them to maintain this approach, and as a result, this management will have a long-term positive impact,” she wrote.

The broader risks

The family forest program is just one of numerous offset efforts that Amazon intends to eventually invest in or purchase credits from. The company also announced plans to provide more than $4 million to an “urban greening” program in Germany, another Nature Conservancy project.

Amazon is taking concrete steps to cut its direct corporate emissions as well. It’s invested in more than 30 large-scale solar and wind projects around the world and added rooftop solar panels to dozens of fulfillment or sorting centers, as part of its effort to run entirely on renewable electricity by 2025. The retailer also agreed to purchase 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian with an eye toward ensuring that half of its shipments are “net zero carbon” by 2030.

But between its corporate facilities, data centers, operations, and suppliers, the company has a massive carbon footprint – and one still growing at last count. Last year it emitted the equivalent of more than 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, directly or indirectly. That’s up from around 44 million in 2018.

Amazon, like most companies, hasn’t specified what portion of its emissions it expects to address through nature-based offsets. But a heavy reliance on them creates very real challenges if most of these programs are, as a growing number of researchers believe, often overcounting actual reductions.

It allows companies to assert to customers, policymakers and others that they’re operating in a climate neutral way, while continuing to produce more planet-warming gases, on a ton-for-ton basis, than the programs are removing.

Another issue is that the growing number of nature-based projects is creating larger pools of low-cost carbon offsets, the availability of which can undermine the viability of more reliable carbon-capture methods.

Bottom-line-minded companies will, for instance, likely pick a roughly $10 forestry offset that purports to cancel out the same ton of emissions that Swiss startup Climeworks is charging $1,100 to reliably remove and permanently store, using carbon dioxide sucking machines and underground geological formations. (Notably, Microsoft has said it only wants to pay $20 a ton for offsets as it looks to cancel out its entire corporate history of emissions, which some observers believe will steer it away from the more dependable means of carbon removal.)

It will also often be far cheaper for a corporation like Amazon to buy offset credits than to figure out the tougher aspects of corporate emissions reductions, like fully cleaning up the shipping process or ensuring that its vast network of suppliers is carbon free.

“You are essentially giving these large corporations a license to continue doing business as usual,” says Sam Davis, a conservation scientist at the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental nonprofit focused on protecting forests in the southern US. “If we really need and want to address climate change from a corporate perspective, then we can’t just pay the debt with fancy carbon credits and greenwashing.”

Climate models show that the world will now need to slash emissions and draw down billions of tons of carbon dioxide per year by midcentury to prevent really dangerous levels of global warming. But there are limits to how much forests and other nature-based systems can do to get us there.

Ideally, these options should be reserved for the really hard-to-solve parts of the decarbonization puzzle—like aviation, heavy industry, and methane from agriculture—or used to grant poor nations leeway to continue emitting a little longer as their economies develop, says Holly Buck, an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo.

In other words, there are real risks if rich companies in rich nations buy up a disproportionate share of the cheapest sources of carbon removal while they’ve got plenty of other ways to drive their emissions toward zero.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

Continue Reading


Thanksgiving on track for a record $6B in US online sales, says Adobe



As people prepare and eat their Thanksgiving meals, or just “work” on relaxing for the day, some consumers are going online to get a jump on holiday shopping deals. Adobe, which is following online sales in real time at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the US, covering some 100 million SKUs, says that initial figures indicate that we are on track to break $6 billion in e-commerce sales for Thanksgiving Day. Overall, it believes consumers will spend $189.1 billion shopping online this year.

To put that figure into some context, the overall holiday sales season represents a 33.1% jump on 2019. And last year Adobe said shoppers spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving: this years’s numbers represent a jump of 42.3%. And leading up to today, each day this week had sales of more than $3 billion.

What’s going on? The figures are a hopefully encouraging sign that despite some of the economic declines of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, retailers will at least be able to make up for some of their losses in the next couple of months, traditionally the most important period for sales.

As we have been reporting over the last several months, overall, 2020 has been a high watermark year for e-commerce, with the bigger trend of more browsing and shopping online — which has been growing for years — getting a notable boost from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The push for more social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has driven many to stay away from crowded places like stores, and it has forced us to stay at home, where we have turned to the internet to get things done.

These trends are not only seeing those already familiar with online shopping spending more. It’s also introducing a new category of shoppers to that platform. Adobe said that so far this week, 9% of all sales have been “generated by net new customers as traditional brick-and-mortar shoppers turn online to complete transactions in light of shop closures and efforts to avoid virus transmission through in-person contact.”

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has traditionally been marked as the start of holiday shopping, but the growth of e-commerce has given more prominence to Thanksgiving Day, when physical stores are closed and many of us are milling about the house possibly with not much to do. This year seems to be following through on that trend.

“Families have many traditions during the holidays. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and fear of spreading the virus are, however, preventing Americans from enjoying so many of them. Shopping online is one festive habit that can be maintained online and sales figures are showcasing that gifting remains a much beloved tradition this year,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director, Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement.

(That’s not to say that Black Friday won’t be big: Adobe predicts that it will break $10.3 billion in sales online this year.)

Some drilling down into what is selling:

Adobe said that board games and other categories that “bring the focus on family” are seeing a strong surge, with sales up five times over last year.

Similarly — in keeping with how much we are all shopping for groceries online now — grocery sales in the last week were up a whopping 596% compared to October, as people stocked up for the long weekend (whether or not, it seems, it was being spent with family).

Other top items include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Just Dance 2021, as well as vTech toys and Rainbow High Dolls.

Amazon’s announcement this week that it would be offering more options for delivery this season speaks to how e-commerce is growing beyond simple home delivery, and how this has become a key part of how retailers are differentiating their businesses from each other. Curbside pickup has grown by 116% over last year this week, and expedited shipping is up 49%. 

Smartphones are going to figure strong once more too. Adobe said $25.5 billion has been spent via smartphones in November to date (up 48% over 2019), accounting for 38.6% of all e-commerce sales.

In the US big retailers continue to dominate how people shop, with the likes of Walmart, Target Amazon and others pulling in more than $1 billion in revenue annually collectively seeing their sales go up 147% since October. Part of the reason: more sophisticated websites, with conversion rates 100% higher than those of smaller businesses. (That leaves a big opening for companies that can build tools to help smaller businesses compete better on this front.)

Continue Reading


AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy



AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

Continue Reading


The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets



Julia Borges was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old had been standing on a third-floor balcony when a stray bullet hit her in the back, lodging in the muscle between her lungs and aorta.

That was November 8. Luckily, Borges was taken to hospital and has since recovered. Many are not so fortunate. At least 106 people have been killed by stray bullets in Rio this year so far.

Among the most dangerous areas are the narrow streets of the city’s favelas, where more than a million people currently live. Here, the houses are piled up on each other, and the alleys that wind between them are dotted with small squares. These same streets regularly echo with the sounds of gunfire: shooutouts between police and drug traffickers, rival groups of traffickers, or even police-backed militias take place on a daily basis.

Innocent victims are often caught in the crossfire. In many cases residents must lie on the floor or create barricades to hide from stray bullets as they wait for a truce. In 2019, Rio saw an average of 26 shootings a day. Things have cooled slightly since the pandemic began, but there was still an average of 14 shootings every day up until the end of June. Around 1,500 people are shot dead in Rio’s metropolitan area every year.

Living in Rio is like “being a hostage to violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the neighborhood of Cordovil, west of the city. 

screenshot of FogoCruzado app
A screenshot of Fogo Cruzado

Like many residents, César has started using apps to help keep himself safe. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous zones on their way home and let residents warn others about which areas to avoid. 

One of the most popular apps, Fogo Cruzado, was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story about victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So in 2016 she set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect information about shootings, logging where and when they happened, how many victims there were, and more. In 2018, with the help of Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was turned into an app and a database to help those monitoring and reporting on armed violence. The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.

A user who hears gunshots can log it as an incident on the app. The information is verified and cross-checked by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers and then uploaded to the platform, triggering a notification for users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted collaborators who can instantly upload information without such vetting. Users can subscribe to receive updates whenever they are heading toward a zone considered dangerous—such as a favela that’s known to have had recent shootings, or one that is currently contested by gangs. 

Fogo Cruzado is used by local residents who are planning on leaving home to work or need to check if it’s safe to return afterwards, says Olliveira. 

“I started using the Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in a region I was passing through every day,” says journalist Bruno de Blasi. He says that WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and false reports of shootings, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary scares.”  

Like many in the city, he has had his own experience of being close to a shootout. He recalls one that began on the street where he lives. 

“The feeling was horrible, especially because that street was considered one of the safest and quietest in the neighborhood, which is also where the police battalion is,” he says. “Suddenly I had to stay away from the window of my own room because of the risk of a stray bullet. It was very tense.”

Fogo Cruzado has also worked with a number of other organizations to create a new map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro. The map, which was launched in October, is designed to keep the city’s residents up to date about which areas are currently dominated by criminal factions or police militias and are therefore less likely to be safe.

Other apps also collect data on shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few to be updated by the public, says Renê Silva, editor of the website Voz das Comunidades (Voice of the Communities), which covers the Complexo do Alemão, a large group of favelas in Rio. “There are places where the app identifies shootings that don’t come out in the media,” he says.

The app Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where There’s Shooting) works in a similar way.  It was initially created in January 2016 by four friends as a Facebook page. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the metropolitan region of Rio, Onde Tem Tiroteio(OTT) covers the entire state—and since 2018, it has covered the state of São Paulo too. It differs from Fogo Cruzada in that it lets the network of users double-check the veracity of shooting reports.

funeral of Matheus Lessa
Relatives and friends carry the coffin of 22-year-old Matheus Lessa who was shot dead when he tried to defend his mother during an assault at their family-owned store in Rio de Janeiro

Once you download the OTT app you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, whether it’s shootings, floods, or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of more than 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before being uploaded to the app. Weekly reports are also released to the press. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to Dennis Coli, one of OTT’s cofounders.

“OTT-Brasil’s main mission is to remove all citizens from organized gang looting routes, false police blitzes, and stray bullets, with information that is collected, analysed, and disseminated in a very short period of time,” he says.

The apps have a political angle, too. As well as keeping Rio’s citizens out of danger, they can help researchers and public institutions understand patterns of violence—and help put pressure on politicians.

They “serve primarily to draw attention to the dimension of the problem,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo. For him, such apps have “a specific but key function of increasing the pressure on the authorities.”

Indeed, Recife was chosen as the second city for the Fogo Cruzado app not only because of its high rates of violence but also because, Olliveira says, the state government had stopped releasing data and had started censoring journalists. “Before, there was excellent access to public security data, but the data gradually became scarce and the work of the press became more and more difficult,” she says.

In this way, data collection apps can help challenge the information provided by governments, says Yasodara Córdova, an MPA/Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts.

In the past, the state had a monopoly on official information, but today things have changed, she says. “It is healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged in order to keep the civic space open and global.”

Felipe Luciano, an OTT user from São Gonçalo, a city near Rio, agrees. “The key is trust,” he says. “What motivated me to use OTT is the credibility of the information posted there. I feel safer using it.”

Continue Reading