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Microsoft's climate ambitions - a bumpy road to the goal

Remember the climate state report in which the United Nations called for a zero carbon footprint? Yes, the one with a climate catastrophe, which would take place around 2050. Several large global companies were most seriously concerned about it, including Microsoft. What goals has the software giant set for itself and how is its implementation going?

Elizabeth Wilmott – urban legend

The first step was to appoint a division responsible for the implementation of a long-term climate strategy. The Emissions Management team was led by Elizabeth Willmott, who has been with the company since 2016. Previously, she worked for a decade on sustainable urban development, as well as in non-profit organizations. She could bring for an interview a large binder with many interesting and repeatedly cited reports of her authorship. Among the documents she created, the compendium “The Urban Clean Energy Revolution”, presenting detailed solutions for the urban climate around the world, was probably the most famous. The word “carbon” was used 187 times there. On a daily basis, Elizabeth loves dogs, gardening, swimming in open water and… Excel.

One sentence, that could be found in a UN report was etched in Wilmott’s mind for years. Its authors warned: to achieve the necessary net zero emissions by 2050, billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide must be eliminated from the atmosphere. Elizabeth determined, that Microsoft is able to remove all the carbon footprint it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. These ambitions at the beginning of 2020 took the form of an official declaration: according to Wilmott, in 2030 Microsoft will be “carbon negative”.

Microsoft’s plans – timeline

Microsoft has defined its sub-goals:

  • by 2025, intends to reduce emissions from direct operations to virtually zero by increasing energy efficiency and using 100% renewable energy;
  • by 2030, intends to reduce its direct emissions and emissions from the supply chain by at least 50%;
  • also by 2030, the company will be “carbon negative”

Be careful, who you shake hands with

Lest it be so sweet, let’s mention the activities of Microsoft, which are criticized by environmentalists. And there are several of these.

The first is activity with trade associations that lobby against climate legislation. Critics also mention contracts with oil and gas companies. The company provides innovative solutions in the industry related to the exploration and extraction of the above-mentioned raw materials, working with Shell and Halliburton. The question is whether “dealing” with this market is still “the kiss of death”. After all, there is a clear trend among the oil and gas giants with declarations to reduce emissions and the development of renewable energy sources. It seems only a matter of time, before the rest of the corporations join the glorious activities of ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum, aimed at eliminating carbon dioxide.

In addition, Microsoft regularly supports American congressmen with donations and not always those, who favor pro-climate change. It can be expected, that the company will suspend transfers for a while, as it did in 2019. Then the company’s employees forced it to create new advisory bodies called with subsidies and greater transparency – so that the directions of support are consistent with the priorities in terms of equality or climate change.

Let’s intercept CO2, but how?

Microsoft has been carbon neutral for almost a decade, thanks to buying green energy, installing photovoltaic panels in offices, or electrifying the fleet. Importantly, Now the company has decided to spend a billion dollars to support technologies designed to reduce, capture and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Part of the money is allocated to financing the technology of the Swiss company Climeworks. The technology is already operational in Iceland, taking carbon dioxide from the air and then injecting it into the ground, where it turns into a mineral. The amount of CO2 to be removed corresponds to approximately 11% of the annual carbon footprint produced by Microsoft’s supply chain. The company will certify and report as official compensation for its emissions less than half of this. It is the largest corporate carbon removal order ever.

Cleaning the supply chain

Regardless, the software giant regularly removes carbon dioxide through a number of compensation initiatives, that have been practiced by companies around the world for years. We are talking here about financing afforestation – Microsoft plants trees in the USA, but also in Peru and Nicaragua, it also regenerates the soil in native farms. It buys green energy and puts pressure on more than 58,000 companies in its supply chain – they make up the majority of corporate emissions. Since last year, companies have had to accurately confess their CO2 emissions and… pay an increased internal carbon tax, currently set at $15 per metric ton.

Nobody said it would be easy

The road to achieving ambitious climate goals is not all roses. Relying on forests and soil to capture endless amounts of carbon is becoming more and more difficult in the face of escalating droughts, wildfires and the complications with land ownership. The invasions of pests such as bark beetles, which cunningly use the inability of dried trees to defend themselves naturally, also do not help.

Elizabeth Wilcott herself admits, that the rate of CO2 removal from the atmosphere must reach a much higher level in order for the goals to be achieved as planned. There are 19 direct air capture (DAC) plants around the world, capturing just over 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. The International Energy Agency estimated, that achieving “net zero” by 2050 would require the world to scale up the DAC to capture over 85 million tonnes per year by 2030 and about 980 million tonnes per year by 2050. Microsoft itself estimated that by 2030, it will have to remove 5 to 6 million tonnes of coal. This means, that the technology will have to be significantly expanded to meet Microsoft’s requirements.

After all, the carbon removal industry itself needs more regulation to set stringent quality standards, according to Elizabeth Wilcott, responsible for managing the company’s emissions. In her opinion, it is also a matter of time to raise the difficult topic of responsibility and climate justice. Perhaps the determination of retroactive liability for emissions will allow the largest producers of CO2 to be financially involved in removing the carbon footprint from the atmosphere.

Utopia or catalysing change?

The climate commitments are commendable, but meeting them will require concerted action. A multitude of companies should follow Microsoft. The right step seems to be the pressure on nearly 60,000 “cells”, ie entities, for which Microsoft is the buyer. And if corporations building their eco strategies were to learn a lesson from the activities of the software giant, it could just be using their purchasing power to influence pro-climate attitudes.

Microsoft’s ambitions, as well as the current state related to the possibility of declining emissions in general, was commented by the technology and research team from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. It highlights three ‘flaws’ in the current system: the inconsistent definition of carbon ‘net zero’, the still poor ability to measure and account for carbon dioxide emissions, and the immature market for CO2 offsetting and removal. It is these obstacles, that need to be overcome, if we are to be zero-emission in 2050.

The comment was also signed by … Microsoft’s employee, Elizabeth Wilmott.

Marcin Kapuściński, Transition Technologies MS