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Is Amazon poised to help the environment? Photo: Shutterstock

Before Amazon moved into South Lake Union, who would have believed it possible for such a large company with such ambitious growth plans to locate in downtown Seattle?

Logistically, there were already serious problems with traffic, transit, access to schools, crime and street disorder, and looming issues with the viaduct. Philosophically, Seattle has always displayed ambivalence if not downright hostility to big corporations and lately that has ramped up with regard to Amazon.

Compound that with the state’s and city’s generally acknowledged slowness to add new infrastructure and you’ve got a corporate nightmare waiting to happen.

But Amazon moved into South Lake Union anyway. It was a bold move, motivated by a desire to attract talent, but full of risk.

You’ve heard the company blamed by all sorts of people for all sorts of failings—the “brogramming” of Seattle, gentrification of Capitol Hill, housing cost inflation, traffic gridlock, loss of retail (especially independent retail), and generally as the reason why our city is losing its soul.

But as I’ve thought more lately about how we can have an impact locally on the pace of climate change globally, I’ve started thinking that Amazon has the potential makings of an environmental hero.

Seattle traffic along 2nd Avenue. (Photo via Oran Viri)
Seattle traffic along 2nd Avenue. (Photo via Oran Viri)

If our state and local governments respond effectively to the opportunities created by Amazon and other urban companies (for instance, for downtown density we need downtown schools), we may become one of the cities the rest of the world looks to for how to have a major impact on reducing our contributions to climate change.

Here’s why:

1. Green transportation. Amazonians are not commuting by car (much). According to Amazon, 25% of Amazon’s work force walks to work and another 52% ride public transit. This compares to 70% single occupancy vehicle commutes for the 4-county metro region as a whole. Because vehicles are the second largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the US, right behind the power sector, this is huge.

2. Housing and Office Density. Yes, Amazon workers have dramatically increased the density in the downtown core (the one place no one can claim is a single family neighborhood, so no NIMBY complaints!).

Think of the difference with a large company located on the east side or across the ship canal, where single family housing is the major stock versus downtown’s residential and office high-rises, and the sprawl that can result from growth at those companies. Density, even if you hate it, is very, very good for the environment.

High-rise offices are more energy efficient than low-rise offices and smaller, stacked housing is more energy efficient and promotes fewer car trips and less consumption (no place to put that stuff!). And, over time, this same density might also help women (and men) with families prefer Amazon as an employer.

Density, when coupled with public safety and services, reduces the number of hours and dollars devoted to commuting and childcare. And density feeds on itself. The more density there is downtown, the more amenities will be attracted and the more people will want to live and work there.

Amazon Box3. Reduced trips. Having your groceries delivered, or even tchotchkes come in the mail, can seem like a wasteful luxury, but at least one study by the University of Washington has shown that the carbon footprint of Amazon’s highly tuned transportation system is much less than all of us running our own errands. This, like making commuting more energy efficient, is hugely impactful to the climate at scale.

4. Clean Cloud. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is no doubt an energy hog and late to the party on finding ways to promote green energy as part of its huge electricity buying power (now catching up—see for instance its solar farm in North Carolina with partner Iberdrola Renewables).

However, Amazon is widely acknowledged as the company that made cloud computing a reality and drove the rest of the industry to follow.

Research by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that as much as 87% of our energy consumption from computing could be avoided if all US businesses ran their operations in the cloud instead of on their own servers.

Amazon Web Services — AWS

When and if we get a carbon tax, and when low carbon sources of power get cheaper by comparison, cloud computing will still be driven to low cost power, and over time that power will be green.

We’ve seen a lot of the cloud companies seek green power for PR and environmental reasons, but now economics will be pulling in the same direction.

The reality is that we need to change the way we live and work to successfully slow the pace of climate change.

Efficiency improvements are the low-hanging fruit, and Amazon has started to create greater energy efficiency for us and its employees in some truly significant and overlooked ways.

Amazon, here’s a worthy next step: sign up to the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, demonstrate your commitment, and make Seattle proud.

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