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Microsofts ambitious carbon negative climate goal sets it apart from Amazon and other tech giants

byLisa StiffleronJanuary 17, 2020 at 7:25 amJanuary 18, 2020 at 1:37 pm

A wide-ranging environmental initiativeunveiled by Microsoft this weekrepresents some of the most aggressive goals that climate experts say theyve seen.

Microsoft on Thursdaypledged to become carbon negativeby 2030, removing more carbon than it emits. And by 2050 it has vowed to erase a volume of carbon equal to all of the greenhouse warming gas that the company has emitted since launching in 1975.

This raises the bar for corporate climate commitments, said Sue Reid, vice president of climate and energy for Boston-basedCeres, a nonprofit that promotes corporate environmental sustainability. What is brand new here is a major company committing to counterbalancing all of its emissions over its entire history.

In addition, Microsoft is creating a Climate Innovation Fund through which it plans to invest $1 billion over four years to boost the development of new technologies globally to capture carbon, reducing its release and removing it from the atmosphere.

The company is also putting increased focus on the sizeable emissions that are not directly related to the companys actions, but that comes from indirect activities. That includes carbon generated by its product supply chain, the materials in its buildings, employee business travel and even the electricity its customers use when plugging in Microsoft products.

No one company can solve this macro challenge alone, but as global technology company, we have a particular responsibility to do our part, said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at event Thursday morning at the companys headquarters.

Experts internationallycontinue warningthat drastic carbon-reducing actions are needed to stave off the worst environmental and societal damages. They connect increasingly frequent catastrophes, including the current firessearing Australiaand amelting Arctic, to long-term changes in the climate.

The initiative sounds quite holistic, and on that level is a standout, said Paula DiPerna, a special advisor to theCDP, an international organization that helps track carbon emissions.

The announcement comes at a time that Amazon Microsofts Northwest neighbor and one of its greatest rivals has taken steps to burnish its environmental record and become more engaged in battling climate change.

Microsoft President Brad Smith, Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood and CEO Satya Nadella preparing to announce Microsofts plan to be carbon negative by 2030. (Brian Smale / Microsoft Photo)

In September,Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announcedwith fanfare theClimate Pledge, which sets carbon reduction goals and timelines for reaching them.

Were done being in the middle of the herd on this issue weve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference, Bezos said at the time.

Amazon is the first signatory of the pledge, and Bezos urged other companies to sign on. The company declined to say who has joined them.

But while Amazon was praised for stepping up on the issue and setting carbon targets a decade earlier than whats called for in the international Paris Agreement, its pledge is less ambitious than Microsofts initiative.

However, important distinctions set the two tech giants apart: Microsoft is predominantly a software and cloud company, and whiletwo-thirds of Amazons operating profitscome from its cloud division, the companys massive online sales and shipping are more difficult to tame in terms of climate impact. Some also point to the relative age of the two companies Microsoft launched in 1975 while Amazon started in 1994 as contributing to their levels of engagement in environmental and social issues.

Heres how the two companies roughly stack up:

Microsoft reached carbon neutrality in 2012, while Amazon is aiming to be carbon net zero by 2040.

Both companies are aiming to use 100% renewable power for their facilities; Microsofts goal is 2025, Amazons is 2030.

Microsoft will be carbon negative by 2030, and aims to remove the equivalent of all of its historic emissions by 2050.

Amazon is investing $100 million in reforestation; Microsoft is contributing $1 billion to the Climate Innovation Fund.

University of Washington political science professor Aseem Prakash gave Microsoft kudos for its actions and for its PR savvy in the move.

In terms of positioning itself vis–vis Amazon. they have very clearly, categorically positioned themselves, he said.

Microsofts announcement came two weeks afterAmazon was criticizedfor threatening to fire employees for speaking publicly about the company without getting pre-approval. The company targeted two workers who have been leaders in a campaign calling for Amazon to take action on climate change.

Climate also took a more prominent role inthis weeks debateamong the Democratic presidential candidates.

When it comes to the timing of the news, politically its absolutely brilliant, said Prakash, who is the founding director of theUW Center for Environmental Politics.

Microsoft has put itself out in front on social and policy issues in the past. Its announcement last year of a $500 million affordable housing plan for the Seattle region, was followed by larger housing affordability initiatives fromAppleandFacebook. Microsoft this weekannounced it will spend an additional $250 millionon the housing plan.

Brad Smith, Microsofts president, told GeekWire that he hopes to see others follow the companys approach to the climate, as well.

I think itll be good for the world if companies that have strong balance sheets put some of their balance sheet to work to advance climate solutions, he said.

Microsoft President Brad Smith details the companys climate initiative at an event in Redmond, Wash., on Thursday morning. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

He added, For us there was some real learning gained on the housing side that we brought to the carbon side of this issue. One thing we learned is that the world needs to spend more money to address some of these problems. The second thing we learned was that the key to spending money effectively is to make sure the money flows where its not flowing already.

But Microsoft and other cloud computing companies Amazon included have been called outfor marketing their tools to petroleum companies whose products are contributing to climate change.

The big elephant in the room is if you are pitching cloud computing business to oil and gas companies, what is the point of all the song and dance about carbon reductions, said Prakash.

Microsoft for many years has been a leader on climate change issues. In 2012, the year that the company became carbon neutral, it also self-imposed a tax on its own carbon emissions to internally discourage actions that created the release of planet warming pollution.

Microsofts focus on putting a price on carbon is a key piece of its strategy, DiPerna said. Particularly when applying the price, or tax, to the indirect emissions.

Recognizing that in order to reduce emissions you really need to price them, the fact they are doing it, an internal carbon tax, thats a very significant development, she said.

There are other companies taking notable action on climate change. They include:

Intuit, the maker of TurboTax and other consumer software, pledged in September to be carbon negative by 2030, and then went even further, pledging to reduce its emissions 50-fold compared to its 2018 footprint. Those reductions should eventually cancel its carbon debt.

Furniture makerIKEAhas vowed become carbon negative, which theyre calling climate positive, by 2030.

The electrical companyXcel Energyhas committed to delivering 100% carbon-free electricity to customers by 2050, with an interim goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Xcel operates in eight states.

While Microsoft is certainly a leader in climate action, as a producer of software, cloud services and video games, its a business with a somewhat easier task relative to other corporations when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint. Amazon, for example, has the challenge of addressing the impact of internationally shipping billions of packages a year.

Reid, of Ceres, applauded Microsoft for its ambition and transparency in how its accounting for emissions and tackling reductions. But she is anxious to see how some of the implementation plays out, particularly when it comes to unproven and even undeveloped technology for capturing carbon pollution that will be required to meet some of the goals.

DiPerna agreed. There are [carbon capture technologies] that are on the horizon and we have to hope that they develop, she said, and they may not.

Overall, the climate experts gave credit to Microsoft for pushing into new areas of climate commitment.

This is fantastic. They are industry leaders, Prakash said. But our job is to keep the pressure on. They are doing this because we are all watching them.

With reporting by GeekWires Todd Bishop from Redmond.

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is a reporter, editor and Northwest native who nearly two decades ago swapped a lab coat for a reporters notebook. Covers local efforts to use technology to solve environmental, health, societal and other do-gooder challenges. .

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