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AT&T's head of global environmental sustainability talks progress


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AT&T's head of global environmental sustainability talks progress

AT&T is continuing to expand its renewable energy purchases as it strives for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

The company's climate change analysis tool has been expanded to the contiguous 48 states covering coastal inland flooding, extreme winds, droughts and wildfires.

The spinoff of WarnerMedia will not have a material impact on AT&T's climate goals.

Shannon Thomas Carroll is AT&T Inc.'s new head of global environmental sustainability. AT&T has recently announced climate initiatives including a major solar power purchase to aid in reaching its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. It has also continued to expand the scope of its public climate change analysis tool developed with the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. S&P Global Market Intelligence recently spoke with Carroll to discuss AT&T's climate priorities, as well as its successes and challenges.

Below is an edited version of that interview.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: What climate projects and goals is AT&T prioritizing over the next few years?

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Shannon Thomas Carroll, AT&T's new head of global environmental sustainability
Source: AT&T Inc.

Shannon Thomas Carroll: The continued area of renewable energy is going to be important to AT&T. We have 1.7 gigawatts of capacity in a contract now. A lot of those wind-solar farms are actually up and operational, but we still have more to come. We're already No. 7 on the EPA Green Power List, which only accounts for actual generated energy, not capacity.

Another significant part of our emissions is our global fleet. Transitioning to low- and zero-impact vehicles is going to be important as well. We are currently putting a master plan together to have a long-term strategy of things we need to do to make sure that we accomplish that, which is going to be done in a large part through electric vehicles. We also want to keep an open mind and be prepared to pivot accordingly as new technologies emerge.

Additionally, we are determined to make sure that we're offering products and services that can quantifiably reduce emissions for our customers. I'm very proud of the fact that all the methodology that goes into those quantifications has been made public. We're going to be reporting annually on that progress as well. Transparency, not only about the goals themselves but also how we establish them and report on progress is very important to me personally.

Is there intersectionality between AT&T's environmental, social and governance goals?

Yes. Climate change is something that impacts all communities differently. We know that the data out there tells that underserved communities experience a very disproportionate impact from climate change. That's something we're definitely aware of, which prompted our work with Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne was already doing a lot of climate modeling for the U.S. government, but we funded them to get that climate data at what we call a neighborhood level. Before, flooding might have been one data point that covered 12 kilometers; now we have one data point that covers 200 meters. That is a really big deal. Although there clearly can be variance within 200 meters, it is now much, much more actionable.

We knew very early on that even though we could keep this data for ourselves, and we immediately made that pilot data available to everybody. Our belief is that AT&T cannot be climate resilient in a vacuum. That actually doesn't do anything for us. We need our full value chain, the communities in which we serve and operate — everybody — to be climate resilient, including our customers and competitors.

What are some examples of how AT&T uses the climate analysis tool to make real-world decisions?

We integrated the climate data into a geographic information system mapping tool. That is really, really valuable and really important because that puts visualization in front of folks. If a network engineer has five central offices in an area that they're responsible for, they can now go in on that GIS tool to click on their central offices and look at the flooding and the wind risk specific to those central offices.

Going beyond that, I think the most value will come from what we're doing now, which is integrating that data into our network design and planning tools. If you're a network engineer that's planning and designing the network of the future, that climate data is actually going to be part of that workflow as well. It's not anything they have to look for — it's going to be put in front of them. And we are going to have that data for the contiguous 48 states covering coastal inland flooding, extreme winds, droughts and wildfires. Now engineers can plan out the networks of the future with all of those different risk areas identified.

Then we are going to go a step beyond that. Instead of just providing the data points, we will also produce risk scores. The way flooding impacts different types of equipment is different. For example, it doesn't impact a central office as a structure in the same way that it will impact a mobility tower. These are things we can now consider as we're designing the network of the future.

If we were going to put a new cell tower somewhere, traditionally, depending on the information that we have, we might put a backup battery at the ground level because maybe there's been no historical flooding there. But now, if the climate data tells us that it's very likely to flood in the future, we can put a platform there and put the backup generator higher than the flood level. When it comes to fiber, fiber is actually pretty resistant to water, and that's great from a flood perspective. But where does the fiber connect? Those connecting points aren't as resistant, so we can focus on those areas.

What climate initiatives are you excited about working toward in 2022? Is there something that we should be specifically watching out for?

I'm excited about continued kind of collaborative opportunities when it comes to the climate data. For example, we've already worked with New York Power Authority, there's public information around that. We've already worked with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation using our data on their data together. We've got community challenges with several universities. One of the things I personally excited about is just collaborating more and more around environmental sustainability, specifically around climate change and the climate data as much as people are willing to collaborate. I just think it's important that everybody's climate resistant, not just individuals or select companies.

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How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted AT&T's environmental goals? Has the pandemic made it difficult for AT&T to prioritize climate initiatives?

The most tangible impact for us is really around our Scope 3 emissions. Business-related travel is categorized as Scope 3 emissions, and AT&T saw a 70% decrease in business-related travel over the course of the pandemic. I don't think we're alone in that. Aside from that, from our perspective, as a network provider, the pandemic has really highlighted how vital internet connectivity is. And so from our perspective, maintaining the network became even more important given the pandemic. We're committed to continue to do that. COVID has not impacted our ability to maintain that network in any way.

Do you think the reduction in business travel is something that becomes part of the new normal, or is that something that comes back?

The honest answer is we don't know yet. There's always going to be a need for some business travel. I definitely think something like COVID allows us to reexamine how necessary all business travel is.

AT&T is about to get a lot smaller with its spinoff of WarnerMedia. How does that impact your job?

When you look at the company that we're divesting from, combined, they represent just about 5% of our overall greenhouse gas footprint. So from a practical perspective and a [greenhouse gas] footprint perspective, there's very minimal impact.