Microsoft is demonstrating strong leadership with its bold new climate pledge. The software giant promised to become “carbon negative” by 2030, reducing more carbon than it emits. By 2050, it plans to eliminate as much carbon as it emitted since its founding in 1975.
In the nearer term, Microsoft will invest $1 billion over four years to accelerate development of technologies to remove, capture and reduce carbon. This broadens its socially responsible investing programme that’s providing $750 million for affordable housing. Microsoft also is placing carbon requirements on suppliers, and promising annual progress reports.
“It’s a hat trick of sustainability leadership,” Environmental Defense Fund managing director, Elizabeth Sturcken, told the BBC. “But to really shift the needle on climate change, we need 1,000 other (companies) to follow suit and turn rhetoric into action.”
Substantial efforts by companies are critical as the global warming crisis intensifies. Corporate leadership in the US is also needed as the White House backtracks on climate commitments and weakens environmental protections. The failure of last month’s United Nations climate summit in Madrid also highlighted the importance of private leadership.
Microsoft was already among nearly 800 companies in a UN alliance pledging to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Microsoft now has a more aggressive timetable than the alliance and a 2040 carbon neutral goal that Amazon announced in September. But Amazon’s target may be more ambitious, given that it’s producing not just software, services and devices, but also a global retail and logistics network.
Other major employers are making strong commitments. Starbucks last week announced an array of responses, including a preliminary goal of cutting emissions from operations and its supply chain in half by 2030. Starbucks will also invest in more eco-friendly stores and operations, and in supply-chain improvements like reforestation and water replenishment.
Still, Mother Earth will be the final judge of how much benefit comes from companies’ pledges and carbon offset techniques.
Global companies have many indirect effects, contributing to dispersed growth and productivity. They can help customers, partners and other regions prosper and improve living standards, which tends to increase pollution.
The trick is finding ways to decouple economic growth from emissions growth. Washington state, home of Microsoft and Amazon, is raising the bar there too, though it’s partly luck, being blessed with an abundance of clean tech jobs and hydroelectricity.
Washington had the nation’s fastest economic growth in 2016 and 2017, growing its gross domestic product 4.4 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively.
That growth was supercharged by a cluster of tech companies. Yet economic and population growth they spurred did not cause comparable increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
State emissions rose just 1.7 percent in 2016 and declined in 2017, according to the latest Department of Ecology tally.
Of course, emissions must be further reduced to meet state and global targets to prevent ecological catastrophe. That also requires big advances in clean energy and pollution reduction technologies. Washington companies will contribute, along with the state’s network of academic, government and private research organisations.
Software built on both sides of Lake Washington should help whatever companies and people are working on this most pressing challenge. Caffeine should help, too.