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Microsoft’s Big Climate Commitment: So Near and Yet So Far

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Last week Microsoft put down a significant climate industry marker in its announcement of a Commitment to Sustainability, including a commitment to be carbon-negative by 2030, and by 2050, to remove from the environment all of the carbon the firm has ever emitted, directly or by electrical consumption. Incredible, right? Absolutely incredible.

Microsoft is going to step up its lobbying efforts, with clear and unambiguous statements based on the latest science on the dangers of not tackling carbon emissions head one. It’s going to offer an online carbon calculator for Microsoft Azure customers. It’s going to commit to power purchase agreements in place for 100% of the renewable energy that it needs for all of Microsoft’s datacenters, buildings and campuses, by the year 2025.  All this news made me happy, and made a lot of Microsoft employees proud. Well done Microsoft these are all excellent initiatives.

Lobbying is important – too many companies argue it’s not their place to take a political stance, for example, and then spend tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on tax avoidance. Governments certainly need to be encouraged to change the socioeconomic landscape to encourage better climate outcomes. I am sure civil society organisations will appreciate help from Microsoft.

I would have liked to see Microsoft announce it would no longer do business with oil and gas companies. Which sounds crazy, of course, but we’re not going to make it if we don’t start acting crazy.

I love the carbon calculator news, particularly because it puts real pressure on Amazon Web Services. AWS has quite a disparate energy mix, including quite a lot of coal-based energy. It has argued that customers need to drive demand for more renewable energy purchase. If customers demand it, AWS will respond. To be fair, AWS has made significant moves on a better renewable energy mix, but it’s a tactical, rather than a strategic commitment. If Microsoft’s commitments lead customers to make demands on AWS then we’ll all benefit. Google Cloud meanwhile is already 100% renewables.

Microsoft will achieve carbon negative status partly through offsets and carbon fees. While I am not anti-offset, offsets certainly don’t truly cover their carbon costs. Microsoft says it will invest in planting trees for example. One of the slightly strange arguments in the initial announcement concerns trees.

And then the last part of being carbon negative actually requires that we do work to remove carbon, and we have a variety of well-thought-out approaches to pursue this. It will start with more nature-based approaches because that is what is generally available and affordable today. That involves, sometimes, planting trees, but it only really is impactful if you plant trees that somebody else wasn’t already going to plant, if you plant trees that nobody is going to cut down, if you plant trees with an eye to the use of data science to maximize the impact in removing carbon from the atmosphere, and that’s what we’re going to do

There’s a slightly jarring reductionism here. While I appreciate this claim is an argument about the math(s), sustaining forests has a benefit that goes beyond net new trees. Existing arboreal and tropical forests are certainly incredible carbon sinks, but their are also biodiversity banks, incredibly complex ecosystems that support animal and insect communities. One you lose these forests you not only face a real struggle replanting, but you’ve lost the biodiversity. Which is to say, one thing I found incredible about a statement ostensibly about “Sustainability” was that it didn’t mention biodiversity at all. To be fair systems thinking is hard, and from a story telling perspective carbon negative is an incredible goal. Perhaps Carbon Commitment would be more accurate.

But about that – Microsoft in its announcement talked about carbon neutrality in its supply chains. This feels really hard. It’s hard enough to be carbon neutral when you’re a software and cloud company, but ensuring carbon negativity when you’re selling laptops and XBoxs is a lot harder. Again – if Microsoft leadership here makes an impact on the the consumer electronics industry we all owe them a massive favour. But again, regarding sustainability, carbon reporting isn’t the problem – rare earth metal consumption and chemical usage are glaring environmental issues. Microsoft has some solid claims it can make in terms of sustainability, above and beyond the new news. Not least is the relationship on the desktop between Windows software and older hardware – in short Microsoft backwards hardware compatibility is excellent. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

We’ve all gone too far, and in that sense, its good to see Microsoft creating a $1bn innovation fund for climate mitigation tech. Carbon capture for example may be part of the solution mix going forward.

But what we’ll look forward to doing, and what the world needs, is new technology. It needs technology that doesn’t fully exist today, for example, to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Direct air capture technology, for example, where it is literally run through a machine, and the carbon is removed from it.

Certainly hopeful, there. I am definitely not here to complain about Microsoft’s efforts in climate clarity. I am here to applaud them. But we all need to get our acts together. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my air travel footprint – no amount of offsetting is going to fix that. And major tech firms reflect a similar dynamic. We’re going to have make major systemic, systematic and behavioural changes. “Tech intensity” won’t be enough. It’s got to hurt, and I don’t see enough of that yet in Microsoft’s hopeful arguments for ways to protect, sustain and nourish our “brilliant jewel in the black, velvet sky.”

All that said, your move, industry.



full disclosure: AWS, GCPO Cloud and Microsoft are all clients


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