Amazon's $21 billion Rivian stake is a bet that innovation can help solve climate change

Amazon's $21 billion Rivian stake is a bet that innovation can help solve climate change

November 13, 2021
  • Amazon's big bet on Rivian paid off this week when the electric vehicle start-up made an explosive debut on the public markets.
  • Beyond Rivian, Amazon has invested in other start-ups developing technologies that could help further its goals of decarbonization.

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Amazon's big bet on Rivian Automotive paid off this week when the electric vehicle start-up made an explosive debut on the public markets.

Rivian raised nearly $12 billion in the mammoth offering and landed a lofty valuation of more than $110 billion, higher than auto giants GM and Ford. The IPO resulted in a massive windfall for Amazon, which invested more than $1.3 billion in Rivian. Amazon's 20% stake in the business is now worth more than $21 billion.

Rivian's IPO was a huge success for Amazon financially. It's also key to one of the company's most challenging mandates — to cut the amount of damage it does to the environment.

Amazon has long been criticized for not moving fast enough to address its environmental footprint. More than 1,000 Amazon employees walked out in 2019 to urge it to do more to combat climate change, after submitting a shareholder proposal signed by thousands of employees.

In 2019, Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos stood on stage to unveil a sweeping plan to transform the company's climate policies and vowed that Amazon would be carbon neutral by 2040. He also announced that Amazon was placing an order for 100,000 electric last-mile delivery vans from Rivian to be delivered by 2030. Amazon hopes to have 10,000 of them on the road as early as next year.

Those goals are largely at odds with Amazon's current reality. As the nation's largest online retailer, Amazon delivers more than 10 billion items worldwide annually using an extensive network of gas-guzzling planes, vans, trucks and ships. It's brought more of its transportation operations in house and dotted the country with warehouses in its quest to speed up deliveries from two days to increasingly one-day and, in some cases, within hours of an order being placed.

Bezos has previously said that same-day or one-day deliveries can lead to decreased emissions by reducing dependence on planes, while locating warehouses closer to customers means delivery vans can make shorter trips when dropping off packages, according to The Washington Post.

Transportation remains the biggest source of climate pollution in the U.S., accounting for 29% of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last year, as the e-commerce giant's business got a pandemic-fueled jolt, so did its carbon emissions, which climbed 19%. Emissions per dollar of merchandise declined by 16% in 2020.

For Amazon to make progress on its decarbonization efforts, it'll need to keep investing in and implementing new transportation technologies. One way it's already doing this is through the $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund, which Amazon uses to invest in start-ups developing technology that can help advance its climate goals.

Amazon's acquisition of Zoox last year for more than $1 billion in part represents another bet on electrification. Zoox has built an all-electric, fully autonomous vehicle that's built for ride hailing.

The company has been testing prototypes of its self-driving vehicle in San Francisco and Foster City in California, Las Vegas and, as of last month, Seattle. The company has also set up an office in Seattle, though Zoox and Amazon still continue to operate separately.

In the future, both Rivian vans and Zoox's self-driving vehicles could fit into Amazon's sprawling logistics network, by making the process of hauling and delivering goods cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly.

But running on electricity is not necessarily a necessity for Zoox, said Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital.

"They could have a vehicle with a combustible engine or it could also be an electric vehicle," Zuberi said. Amazon's primary strategy behind investing in Rivian was to "be ahead of and have a piece of" the coming wave of electric vehicles, he added.

It's unclear if autonomous vehicles have a meaningful environmental impact. Proponents of the technology say self-driving cars will reduce traffic congestion and facilitate the growth of ride-sharing services, which could mean people take fewer trips in their own cars. Others have argued self-driving cars could lead to more people using automobiles to get around, generating greater pollution.

Amazon has made other weighty bets in autonomous vehicles. The company in 2019 invested in self-driving car start-up Aurora as part of a $530 million funding round.

Earlier this year, Amazon placed an order for 1,000 autonomous driving systems from self-driving truck start-up Plus and, as part of the deal, was given the option to purchase a 20% stake in Plus. It has also tested hauling goods on self-driving trucks made by Embark.

"[Amazon] is seeing that we're in the very early innings of a multi-decade transformation in mobility and autonomous is going to be a huge part of that, as is electric," said Asad Hussain, senior mobility analyst at financial data company Pitchbook. "So I think Amazon is sort of hedging its bets on all of this innovation going on and making sure they're getting the exposure where they can in areas where, maybe in the future, it will help their core businesses."

Amazon has also developed its own Scout delivery robot, which is a small six-wheeled electric vehicle. And it's increasingly adding more micro-mobility delivery options in dense, urban areas, like electric cargo delivery bikes.

Amazon's interest in decarbonization isn't limited to its transport systems on the ground.

In May, Amazon's Climate Pledge Fund invested in Beta Technologies, which is building an electric aircraft, as part of a $368 million funding round. Amazon has also backed start-ups developing hydrogen-powered planes and net-zero carbon diesel and jet fuels.

Amazon, which has a massive ocean shipping operation, last month agreed to switch to zero-carbon fuels for ocean freight by 2040.

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