Autodesk Inc. is proud to be a clean company. It reports decreasing emissions and invests millions of dollars in technology that will improve the environment.
One problem: the software is used to operate and design machinery for Europe’s largest coal mine complex. The German energy giant RWE AG is expanding production at the pits ahead of the 2030 phase out of this highly polluting energy source. Greta Thurnberg, a climate activist, was held there in January during a protest .
Joanie Lemercier, an artist, was also present at the protest. His multi-year campaign against Autodesk has seen him disrupt events, heckling executives, and arguing that the San Francisco-based company cannot be called green unless it ceases selling software to the fossil fuel sector.
Banks financing energy companies that emit carbon dioxide have been a target of activists for a long time. Fewer people have looked at the links between technology companies and firms that accelerate climate change. Autodesk isn’t ready to give up clients it deems problematic, just as the banks.
“I appreciate your passion. Joe Speicher, Vice President of Sustainability at Autodesk, stated that Lemercier’s protests were unacceptable. We can’t transition to renewable energy without including the oil and gas corporations.”Speicher pointed to the European energy crisis that followed the outbreak of war in Ukraine as an example for why society cannot abandon fossil fuels quickly. I don’t believe that cutting off a customer, or an industry, especially one that is legally tasked with meeting the country’s energy needs, is the right way to go.
Although Autodesk is not a household name but its industrial design software has played a significant role in shaping the world over the past 40 years. According to advertising materials, Autodesk software was used in the design of Tesla’s cars and PetroBras oil drills. The One World Trade Center in New York, Saudi Arabia’s huge luxury tourism development at the Red Sea, as well as PetroBras’ oil drilling equipment, were all created by Tesla. The company’s more than 50 applications bring in about $5 billion in annual sales.
Lemercier criticised Autodesk’s indispensable role in heavy industries. The question is, are technology companies responsible for the way their products are used? Lemercier said that the fossil fuel industry isn’t content to purchase Autodesk’s products in the same way as anyone can buy Word, Microsoft Corp.’s text-processing software. He said that Autodesk instead targets polluters using industry-specific tools.
Speicher stated that Autodesk’s software assists clients in meeting their climate goals and that customers choose the company because of its sustainability focus. He said that Autodesk’s foundation invests millions annually in low-carbon technology, philanthropy and other causes.
It is no surprise that the company dismissed the claims of the activist – its reported emissions are far lower than those of similar-valued companies in a range industries such as Ford Motor Co., Truist Financial Corp., and Yum! Pizza Hut. Brands Inc. Autodesk, a software company, is able to make a profit from heavy industry clients without needing to address any environmental concerns, such as carbon emissions caused by the German coal mine. According to Autodesk’s submission to Climate Disclosure Project, the vast majority Autodesk’s emissions are indirectly created by purchasing cloud computing power or employee travel.
Autodesk’s reporting practices are in line with the standard reporting rules. However, this doesn’t mean that Autodesk is free from ethical questions. Shannon Lloyd studies corporate climate reporting at Concordia University, Montreal. She said, “Does Autodesk wish to be a company which publicizes its efforts to be net zero while at the same creates products for oil-and gas companies?”
In a Twitter exchange with Lemercier in 2019, Chief Executive Officer Andrew Anagnost stated that high-emissions projects would continue regardless of Autodesk’s role. He acknowledged that clients such as the RWE coal mine weren’t something to be proud of, but he said, “at the minimum, we don’t have to highlight it [as a success story]”.
After the Twitter spat between the CEO and the activist, the case study on Autodesk’s collaboration with RWE was taken from the website of the software company. Today, Autodesk highlights sustainability-focused stories, almost none of which mention non-renewable energy. Although the company does not disclose industry revenue, a spokesperson stated that fossil fuel companies make up a small percentage of its business.
“Maybe the coal plant is a one off – or maybe they have a top client – we don’t know. This lack of disclosure poses a reputational risk and a business risk,” Jaclyn Allen, SalterBaxter said. SalterBaxter consults with Ford and T-Mobile Inc. on sustainability strategies and communications. She stated that they need to be clear about their approach and management of high-emissions customers.
Allen said that this could be achieved by reducing sector dependence over time and only working with companies involved in energy transition or terminating contracts with troubled actors.
Technology companies rarely lose customers for ethical reasons. Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google were the three biggest US cloud computing providers. Employee protests over their help to clients such as Chevron locate oil more efficiently after a 2020 Greenpeace Report. Only Google stated that it would cease developing algorithms in the industry. The protests by employees at Salesforce Inc. over its work with US Customs and Border Protection and National Rifle Association had no effect.
Lemercier is not an Autodesk investor or employee. He makes an unlikely antagonist. Lemercier, a visual artist, used Autodesk tools for many years before becoming obsessed by the German coal mine two hours from his home in Belgium. It was a surprise to him that the mine was also an Autodesk client. Lemercier realized that he was not able to influence a company such as RWE and decided to push the software company to end the project. “I feel very connected with them — I’m an user, I’ve been to San Francisco with them, and a lot my friends have done residencies there.”
To minimize his impact, the company distributed a Lemercier “mitigation Plan” before its 2020 conference. It encouraged employees to ignore or block him on social media and gave them talking points to respond to his criticisms. This was done to provide advice to large groups, customers and employees who had been receiving unwanted comments and emails.
Lemercier is aware that Autodesk isn’t the only company that is complicit in climate-harming projects — he just hoped that it would listen. He used coal-based ink to draw portraits for CEO Anagnost and bank executives, and then posed them in front the mine.
Lemercier stated that as an artist, “I feel a little ineffective when it comes down to reducing global CO2 emissions.” “I’m doing desperate attempt