One year after pledging to remove all of its historic and future planet-heating emissions within a few decades, Microsoft says it has already slashed its carbon footprint by 6 percent. It’s an incremental change that’s in line with what’s needed globally to address the climate crisis, but there is a whole lot of work left for Microsoft to do.
Last January, Microsoft pledged to do something that, at the time, was pretty unheard-of: it planned to become carbon negative by 2030. That gave the company a deadline to capture more planet-heating carbon dioxide than it emits. Not only would it target future emissions, but the company also pledged that, by 2050, it would remove the equivalent of all the carbon dioxide it’s released since being founded in 1975. It made those promises even though the technology to make it all happen doesn’t yet exist at commercial scale.
Now, we’re beginning to get a glimpse of what’s actually feasible for Microsoft to achieve. Some of the reduction in climate pollution it accomplished last year was a result of the economic toll of the pandemic. Microsoft will need to continue making cuts year on year without the help of a global crisis. The sustainability report it released today also showed how much the company can actually rely on carbon-removal technologies — which, at the moment, is not very much.
When companies set goals to become carbon neutral, or carbon negative in Microsoft’s case, the company isn’t saying it will stop pumping out greenhouse gases altogether. What it will do is cancel out some portion of its greenhouse gases by paying other companies and nonprofit organizations to trap and store carbon dioxide. The tricky part of these corporate sustainability pledges is that it’s not usually clear how much carbon dioxide the company plans to cut altogether versus how much it will continue to pollute and then pay to remove from the atmosphere.
In Microsoft’s case, we now know that the company plans to cut its emissions “by more than half” by 2030. That implies that, in the future, it intends to rely on carbon-removal schemes to make up for almost half of all its carbon emissions. In its 2020 fiscal year, Microsoft released 11,164,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Since making its carbon-removal pledge last January, the company says it purchased contracts to capture 1.3 million metric tons of CO2, over 11 percent of its total.
Companies can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by funding reforestation projects or technology that captures the greenhouse gas from the air. So far, Microsoft has relied mostly on forests to suck up and store its carbon emissions. Less than 1 percent of the carbon Microsoft said it removed from the atmosphere last year was seized through emerging direct air capture technologies.
“Today there is no real existing carbon removal ecosystem and the world must build a new market on an unprecedented scale and timeline, from nearly scratch,” Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a blog post today. Microsoft started a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund last year to accelerate the growth of that “ecosystem,” but much more will be needed to make carbon removal a successful strategy.
Companies relying on forests to erase their carbon footprint comes with pitfalls, too. Although the strategy is now being folded into the umbrella term of “carbon removal,” it’s typically been described in the past as carbon “offsets.” Offsets have gotten a bad rap because investigations into them have shown that they haven’t actually succeeded in permanently trapping carbon dioxide. Companies can claim that they’re canceling out their effect on the climate, when in reality, they’re not.
Microsoft funded three conservation projects through the Nature Conservancy, which was the subject of a Bloomberg investigation last year. Some of Nature Conservancy’s forest preservation projects allowed companies to claim they were shrinking their carbon footprints, when in reality, the forests were not threatened — so there was no additional benefit they were adding to the climate.
Microsoft acknowledges that its reliance on these kinds of conservation projects is a “big weakness” in its initial work. “Reflecting the state of the market today and our immediate need for carbon removal, nearly all the carbon removal solutions we are purchasing are short-term and nature-based,” Smith wrote. “This is not the rocket that will take us to the Moon. The world needs to invent substantially stronger technology-based solutions than are available today.”
The world, including Microsoft, also needs to double down on efforts to stop polluting in the first place. Microsoft has laid out some plans on how it will do that. It’s tying executives’ pay to their performance on sustainability initiatives. The company said it will also work with suppliers to cut down their pollution.
It also incentivizes teams within the company to come up with ways to make their products more sustainable. One notable result from the program: the company updated the Xbox to reduce the power it uses when it’s in “standby mode” from 15W to less than 2W. (Side note: settings still make a really big difference when it comes to making the console as energy efficient as possible, according to the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.)
Microsoft will also have to figure out how to reduce emissions from its data centers, which suck up a lot of energy and are a vital part of its business. It’s already looked into storing servers under the sea, which could save energy by keeping the servers cool naturally without requiring refrigeration. Data centers on land can also use up a lot of water as part of their cooling systems. Microsoft pledged last year to conserve and replenish water where it operates.
Microsoft’s goal of halving emissions by 2030 falls in line with science-based targets. In order to avoid the most severe effects of climate change, the global economy will need to roughly halve emissions by 2030, according to a landmark report by leading climate scientists. By 2050, the world will need to gut emissions to near zero. Carbon removal may offer a small assist, but to get to the Moon, the heavy lifting will have to come from elsewhere.