Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said artificial intelligence is an essential tool for helping businesses reduce their carbon footprint, as he joined a climate change dialog Sunday at the China Development Forum.

Cook took part in a discussion at the annual Beijing event as the culmination of a week of public displays of his company’s commitment to China. He earlier met Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and announced plans to invest further in Apple’s supply chain, stores and research in the country.

Apple has set some of the most ambitious targets among its peers for reducing its carbon footprint — with the Apple Watch touted as its first carbon neutral product. Cook focused on that theme in his remarks and for much of his visit.

“We are making great progress, we are not there yet, and the road ahead requires more innovation,” Cook said of the company’s environmental goals. Apple is pouring substantial investment and resources into its AI development, not least because it has been surpassed by more aggressive competitors like OpenAI with its ChatGPT.

AI “provides an enormous toolkit for every company that’s wishing to be carbon neutral or to lower their emissions by a substantial amount,” the 63-year-old CEO said. It can help businesses calculate an individual person’s carbon footprint, identify materials available for recovery and offer strategies for recycling.

Like Apple, China’s leading tech companies are racing to get ahead in the AI contest, however US trade sanctions have curbed their access to the best semiconductors for the task, made by Nvidia Corp.

The Apple chief returned to the CDF at a time when Beijing wants to show it is open for business. Cook was also one of the marquee names on last year’s list of participants, which was the first time the event was held in-person after three years of Covid isolation. He spoke with China Premier Li Qiang and other CEOs of international corporations following Li’s opening speech. 

Cook told reporters that he had visited China frequently over the past year because “it’s so vibrant and so dynamic here, I just always enjoy coming.” His social team documented on his Weibo profile visits with supply partners and a small coffee-making business using Apple technology.

“To make the best products we need partners who share our commitment to innovation and protecting the planet,” Cook said in one of the posts, lauding suppliers BYD Co., Lens Technology Co. and Shenzhen Everwin Precision Technology Co. He also praised coffeemaker Saturnbird for recycling its coffee grounds and containers.

The environmental theme to Cook’s trip — which included opening an expansive new store in Shanghai on Thursday — may have been chosen to avoid falling afoul of geopolitical sensitivities. Relations between the US and China have continued to deteriorate, with threats to ban ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok in the US if its Chinese owner doesn’t divest.

Apple has been on the receiving end of China’s riposte, as it’s had to navigate an escalated ban on iPhones in Chinese government-run or state-backed businesses.

The company’s global corporate operations are now carbon neutral and it aims to have net zero climate impact across its entire business by 2030. That would include manufacturing supply chains and the full product life cycle.

Apple has also set the goal of eliminating plastic from its product packaging by 2025. When it removed the exterior plastic wrap in its iPhone 13 packaging, Apple avoided 600 metric tons of waste, showing the impact of even small changes when scaled across a vast manufacturing network. It produces hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads and Macs each year, mostly in China.

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