When the UN’s landmark climate report was released in 2018, calling for urgent and unprecedented changes, Microsoft executives were told to “commit it to memory”, said Elizabeth Willmott, who leads the company’s carbon program. “And so we did.”
The report warnedTo avoid catastrophic climate change, the entire world must achieve net-zero emission by 2050. Not only must emissions from countries and businesses be drastically reduced, but billions if not tons of carbon dioxide must also be removed from the atmosphere.
These findings directly informed Microsoft’s climate policy, said Willmott. In January 2020, Microsoft announced that it would be carbon negative by 2030It would have eliminated all carbon from the atmosphere by 2050, which it will do by the time it is 50 years old. This pledge was made by the company to join a small number of businesses, including Ikea, and Intuit software, who have committed to going beyond net zero.
Microsoft is frequently mentioned rankedIt is a leader in climate action. Its policies – from making it easier for people to repair their devicesTo launching software to help companies measure and manage carbon emissions – have been praised for going beyond the company’s own operations to the footprint of its suppliers and customers.
“Being a large, well-known brand, and putting a stake in the ground, talking publicly for years about the importance of climate change, is really critical,” said Simon Fischweicher, head of corporations and supply chains for the environmental non-profit CDP North America.
However, MicrosoftIt has been criticized for its actions that seem to contradict its bold rhetoric on the climate. This includes membership of trade associations that lobby against legislation on climate, contracts with oil-and-gas firms, and donations to politicians who block climate policy.
These connections make it “complicit” in efforts to push against climate action, said Bill Weihl, a former sustainability executive at Google and Facebook and the founder of the advocacy group ClimateVoice.
Growing your goals
Microsoft has been carbon-neutral for almost a decade. This feat has been achieved by purchasing carbon offsets and securing renewable power directly through clean energy companies.
Microsoft has also implemented an intern carbon fee in 2012 at $15 per metric ton. This allows business units to pay for emissions from their operations and electricity as well as business air travel.
“The money gets collected and spent,” said Willmott, whose carbon management team uses the money to fund initiatives such as buying clean energy and carbon offsets. “I have to pinch myself regularly because that was something we dreamed about and didn’t think was actually going to happen.”
It’s a “powerful mechanism”, says Fischweicher, to push a company to think more deeply about the impact of its activities: “To pay a fee, you start to think about: ‘What can I do to reduce that so I have more money in my budget?’”
The company recognizes that more is needed to address climate change and the plan to become carbon negative was a significant step up in its ambitions.
Microsoft has established milestones to help them reach their target. By 2025, it aims to reduce the emissions from its direct operations to “near zero” through gains in energy efficiency and using 100% renewable energy. It has committed to reducing its direct emissions by at least half of its total emissions and the emissions from its supply chains by 2030.
The company’s supply chain – more than 58,000 suppliers provide everything from office furniture to the metals and plastics used in its products – makes up the bulk of its emissions. The company introduced a carbon reporting requirement for suppliers last year and increased the internal carbon fee in order to cover supply chain emissions.
However, to reduce more carbon than it produces, the company will heavily rely upon carbon removal projects. These include funding reforestation projects and nature-based initiatives. However, the company also hopes to rely on technology. Microsoft will invest $1bn in support of emerging technology that can reduce and capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
This is part of the deal. The company has invested in and purchased carbon removal from Climeworks, which operates the world’s largest direct air capture plant, in Iceland, removing CO2 from the air and trapping it in rock underground.
Microsoft managed to remove 1.3m metric tonnes of carbon in 2020 using a range of initiatives, from carbon capture technology to programs based on nature.
These projects have their limitations. In the face of increasing challenges, relying on soil and forests for endless carbon capture is becoming more difficult. worsening wildfires, pests, and changes in land-use. The scale of carbon removal technology is far less than what is needed. There are 19 direct air capture(DAC) Plants worldwide in operation, capturing just over 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. The International Energy AgencyAccording to estimates, the world would need to increase DAC to capture more then 85m tons per year by 2030 and 980m tons annually by 2050 to reach net zero by 2050.
It’s a challenge that Microsoft is grappling with. The number and type of projects currently available is “far short of what we need”, said Willmott. According to the company, it will need remove 5m-6m tons of carbon by 2030. This means the technology will need to be considerably scaled up to meet Microsoft’s demands alone, she said, “and that’s to say nothing of the fact that there’s a real spike in corporate demand”.
It’s not just the amount of viable carbon capture projects that’s lacking, Willmot said; there’s also a quality issue. The industry doesn’t fully distinguish between avoided emissions and those that are actually removed from the atmosphere, she said. More robust quality standards would go a long way to making sure “it’s not quite a wild, wild west that it is today”, Willmot said.
“[Microsoft is] opening up new conversations about historical emissions without having all the answers,” said Aoife Brophy, departmental research lecturer in innovation and enterprise at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. “Leaders on climate need to acknowledge the complexity of the problem and be transparent about the fact that there are not always clear solutions.”
Microsoft’s focus on historical emissions could also help spur a deeper conversation, she said, about “responsibility for the past, and may lead to much better ways to think about issues like climate justice that have not yet been adequately addressed by companies”.
A greater influence
Companies must now consider how their actions affect customers, peers, and society. This shift in perspective, said Fischweicher, “is a really critical turning-point moment … because what you’re also talking about is shifting your business model overall”.
To Microsoft’s critics, this means the company should reconsider its work with oil companies. Microsoft made its announcement about carbon-negative emissions the same week. sponsoredAn oil conference in Saudi Arabia. 2020 Greenpeace report digging into tech companies’ work with the oil and gas industry – such as providing software to support fossil fuel extraction – found that its contract with ExxonMobil “could lead to emissions greater than 20% of Microsoft’s annual carbon footprint”.
The company also spent about $200,000During the 2020 US elections, Microsoft supported politicians with a history supporting climate denial. And this October, Microsoft – along with other corporations – was criticizedAccountable.US awarded the membership of trade organizations that have a history of fighting climate crises legislation to the Business Roundtable, US Chamber of Commerce and Accountable.US. These groups have recently been lobbied against climate legislation included under Joe Biden’s reconciliation bill.
“I feel really strongly that we need to be able to work with everyone to make this transition to a low-carbon economy in the future,” said Willmott, responding to these criticisms. “I really think it’s important not to villainize any particular sector, or villainize any particular entities, but rather really work hard from within to shape the journey.”
Weihl is the founder of ClimateVoice. callingMicrosoft and other lobbyists to dedicate one-fifth of their lobbying dollars for climate policy in 2021 remains skeptical. “Companies are putting their narrow self-interest ahead of actually addressing the climate crisis at scale,” he said. “Silence and unwillingness to publicly distance themselves [from these groups] is not neutrality, it’s complicity.”
Whether it’s Microsoft’s customers and affiliations or the type of work it does, experts agree the company’s size and political heft as well as its position within trade groups give it immense power – and it’s all about how the company chooses to use it.
“Tech companies shape how we engage with the world, and the information we see on a daily basis,” said Brophy. “We need to think of impact beyond measuring emissions and consider ways in which technology can be used to create change across different systems.”
Microsoft’s climate commitments are laudable, she said, but ultimately success will require collective action. “The biggest challenge is that Microsoft’s goals cannot be achieved by Microsoft alone,” said Brophy. “But that’s exactly what we need to see companies across industries doing more of: coming out and being bold, recognizing that they need to be systems leaders.”