AT&T: sustainability on a massive scale
We speak to Shannon Thomas Carroll, Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at AT&T, to see how the telco giant is harnessing sustainability across its massive operations…
Aligning the notion and practice of sustainability within the biggest companies on the planet is no small undertaking and AT&T – founded by Alexander Graham Bell – is no exception. The world’s largest telecommunications company and ranked number nine on the Fortune 500, this giant multinational conglomerate has just over 270,000 employees and posted a 2017 revenue of $190.5bn. This is a holding company whose operations spread out over numerous sectors and territories and to seek a sustainable road map at such a business is as complex as it is integral.
Shannon Thomas Carroll is Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at AT&T and possesses a rich knowledge of both the company’s operations and its sustainable practices as he works to reduce the environmental impact of the telco’s operations. His key accomplishments include “being the internal driver for large scale renewable energy, zero-waste, and supply chain human rights audits”.
Carroll has been with the company for almost 20 years, having served in several different capacities across the 133-year-old conglomerate. “I’ve worked on a consumer side, the business side of the house and on the network side,” he explains. “So I’ve had lots of different roles. I spent a lot of time in project management, as well as with a couple different business units. I did project management and compliance for our supply chain; that’s one of the things that transitioned me into my current role. On the compliance side, you have things like environmental health and safety and that was one of the transitional topics that really got me interested in this work. Then I just started asking for more work around environmental sustainability while I was still in supply chain and was lucky enough to transition that into a full-time role over on the corporate side. I took that supply chain focus and expanded it to a corporate view. Now my responsibilities are specific to environmental sustainability within our operations. So, anything that has an environmental impact within our four walls is, generally speaking, something I would look at.”
AT&T has had a long history of corporate social responsibility, even if it wasn’t always labelled as CSR. “We have an extensive history of strong energy management and corporate real estate management,” Carrol explains. “We looked at things like waste water, and obviously there are natural financial incentives to use those resources, but you also want to look at being a good corporate citizen. What are the positive environmental impacts of doing that? I see my role, first and foremost, as looking into what’s going to be best for the company, while also seeing how we can have the most sustainable business practices possible.”
One of the first things Carroll explored when he stepped into his current role was AT&T’s greenhouse gas footprint. Carroll monitored all the different aspects of scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3 through an inventory to gather the required information. “Once we had that information, we had it verified by an independent third party,” he explains. “That was a great introduction to the job because I got to touch all parts of the business when undertaking a corporate greenhouse gas footprint. From there you then start looking at some of the larger responsibilities, such as waste and how you dematerialise. What projects have been done? What was successful? What wasn’t successful? What maybe didn’t happen in terms of timing and can you pick up the ball again and start trying to work with what hasn’t been done? You have to be strategic in your thinking. You’ve got to read the tea leaves and see how the wind’s blowing externally as well. There’s obviously an importance to the business and what our stakeholders are asking of us is important. You’re looking internally, but you’re also looking externally. You’re trying to think strategically while you still have the practical responsibilities to get the job done.”
As the scale of operations at AT&T is so vast, Carroll liaises with Chief Sustainability Officer, Charlene Lake. They operate at what Carroll describes as the ‘inc. level’ or the corporate side of operations. “The advantage that gives us is we can go into all parts of the business, essentially representing the company. What’s really important though is that we don’t just walk into the different business units and say, ‘This is what you’re gonna do!’ We have to be good business partners, whether it’s internal or external. We’re very lucky that sustainability really is at the core of a lot of our work. So, as we go in to talk to our network folks or our corporate real-estate folks, or our supply chain folks, they’re already doing a lot of this work. What we try to do is help frame that work and see what we can amplify; see what we can do better. We just try to partner with them.”
With support from AT&T’s corporate level, Carroll and his team launched 10X Goals. AT&T’s renewable energy investments are a part of this carbon reduction goal, helping to enable carbon savings 10 times the footprint of AT&T’s operations by 2025. “We have somebody who works full-time on that making sure the methodology is sound,” says Carroll. “We have some-body who’s working on the numerator part of that, making sure that our products and services can deliver that. You have me, I’m on more the denominator side. I’m trying to shrink our own operational footprint so it makes it easier to achieve it. We’re very lucky. We are a large company, but we have the right amount of resources addressing sustainability here.”
One of the challenges Carrol cites as specific to large-scale renewable energy is that first time you put the practice into action. Thus, off-site research is essential in getting these methods right. “We’ve obviously been looking at renewable energy options for years and years and years. We did have some onsite solar and we just knew, because of our scale, that if we’re going to have a significant impact we needed to look offsite at the large-scale renewable energies. We look at what others are doing and then try to figure out if that’s something that could potentially work for us. You do a lot of research and then bring that research and those findings home. We would then start stakeholdering those. I’d say the biggest challenge is because you’ve never done it before, you have to educate a lot of folks on what it is and how it works and how the mechanics of it work. What does it mean for AT&T to go from a relatively small renewable energy concern to one of the largest corporate buyers in the United States? A lot of education has to be done, in getting people familiar with new terminology. I’d say that’s the biggest challenge; the newness of it all.”
In reference to large scale renewable energy, AT&T is one of the top five corporate renewable energy buyers in the US. “The fact that we were able to scale up so quickly is a credit to the professionalism we have on our energy management team. I would say the thing I’m most proud of is just the scale ’cause what you’re really looking for is impact. We’re proud of the 820 megawatts we’ve done so far. We’re the evangelists. We’re going around talking about all the benefits. The interesting thing is when you go into the different business units, my experience is that even if people don’t know it by name, they’re doing the work. These are folks who do sustainability for a living. We already have folks who are trying to save as much water as they can. They’re already trying to remove as many kilo- watts as they can from the business. They’re already trying to be as efficient as they can.”
AT&T has an energy intensity goal, relative to its network, to be 60% more efficient. Carroll wants to push more data through the network using the same, or less energy. “We have a public goal around that. We have a public goal to reduce our fleet emissions by 30%. We have lots of public goals that are already tagged at this work and within the business units. They just have their heads down and are doing the really hard work to achieve this. When we come into departments and explain it’s really about the work that they’re already doing, the light bulbs go off and they become really good business partners. We’re constantly looking at the landscape in terms of the environment. A few years ago, we worked with EDF on our water footprint for example. We’re always looking at every aspect of our operations.”
Technology is driving sustainability and AT&T is largely a technology company thus possessing a read edge when it comes to finding solutions. “I would say just about everything we do has a technology component,” Carroll explains. “For example, we’ve got a project called Icon. It’s basically our internal IoT solution, where we’ve put sensors on all types of internal equipment, including network equipment, HVACS, water towers, everything you can think of. We then actively monitor that through our Icon dashboard and are able to look at predictive and preventative maintenance. Are things running as efficiently as they should? If they aren’t, how can we maximise their efficiency? There’s a lot of data out there, so the key is not just having accessibility to data, but being able to do something smart and good with it. We need to make good, smart decisions around that data.”
“I think it’s important when you’re a company our size that you’re comprehensive. You need to have a short-term plan, a mid-term plan and a longterm plan. You have to think strategically, you have to look far down the line. You just can’t say you’re going to do this and that. You have to be transparent in the way that you do it. And you have actually have to do it.”
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere