Microsoft’s carbon negative plans unpacked
“We live in a world where all of us, whether as individuals, as consumers, or businesses, need to put our house in order,” said Microsoft vice chairman and president, Brad Smith.
Speaking at Web Summit last year, Smith affirmed Microsoft’s bold pledges of becoming carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030.
This focus on becoming climate-friendly, he said, was “transforming every part” of the tech giant’s business.
Microsoft has been working on becoming carbon neutral since 2012 and has extensively reported its intention to better this goal in the proceeding years.
Among its goals, by 2025, the tech giant hopes to shift to a 100% supply of renewable energy, and by 2030 it hopes to have electrified its entire fleet of vehicles.
By becoming carbon-negative, Microsoft hopes to remove more carbon than it emits by 2030 – and all the carbon that it has ever emitted by 2050.
While the big tech firm may arguably be leading the way in becoming green, it is not alone in its mission. “Already thousands of companies have made climate pledges,” Smith acknowleged.
However, all of these companies are facing the same challenge – how do they turn their pledges into progress? According to Smith the answer lies in innovating with new technologies.
“We need to change the way we work, we need to look at all of our different business processes and operations but I think one thing increasingly coming to the forefront is that all of us are going to need to find new ways to innovate our way out of this mess,” Smith stressed.
Smith argued that this was possible to achieve because, over the last three centuries “humanity has worked together on remarkable inventions that have changed our lives for the foreseeable future”.
“If we’re going to keep the world increase in temperature below 1.5 degrees then we need to similarly modernise in such a way that has sustainability as the end goal,” he added.
This can be done, he claimed, through harnessing the power of data and AI; building new markets – especially new carbon markets – and by innovating in the area of policy and law “especially carbon policy, electricity policy and waste policy” he said.
Not all of the above will be achieved overnight, he added, emphasising the need to foster new skills to cater for a “sustainability revolution” where a fluency in sustainability science needed to happen throughout the education ecosystem.
According to Smith, the urgency was such that this fluency in sustainability needed to move into the workplace “as soon as possible”.
“We all need to work together as fast as we can to connect new digital technology with new climate companies,” he urged.
For Smith, the key to the future is investing and partnering with a new generation of people, with a new generation of technology, coming from a new generation of companies.
Firms he singled out included San Francisco-based Planet Labs which creates small satellites, called Doves, that weigh four kilograms and use photographic capability and sensors.
Enthused the Microsoft president: “Planet is one of those companies that is taking our climate revolution into the future
“In a few years, they’ll be able to measure all the methane on the planet and all the carbon dioxide emissions on the planet in real time.
“That data will be a game changer both for enabling us to measure on a planetary basis what’s going on, but also to help governments focus on individual sites and address the need to reduce emissions through regulation,” he explained.
The non-profit sector is also innovating in this area, Smith said, with Microsoft partnering with a start up called SEEDS, which also uses data that comes from satellites and analyses it using artificial intelligence.
“What SEEDS is doing is taking photographic images of all the rooftops in India, and using an algorithm to identify homes that will be susceptible to excessive heat,” Smith explained.
With this knowledge, the startup has identified ways to help occupants of those homes shield from heat by providing burlap bags (normally used to ship vegetables) to shield the rooftops and lower the temperature inside.
“It’s an extraordinary combination of high tech and low tech coming together,” Smith raved. “Then, volunteers take the data and they visit the homeowners and they give people advice about how to keep their family safe.”
While this technology keeps track of the heat and emissions, it could only be categorised as adaptation technology, because it is helping us adapt to the rising temperature, rather than stumping the increase in heat itself.
Smith argued that technologies we really need to focus on involve the world’s energy transition – simply because so much of the carbon that is emitted today comes from energy generation.
On this score, Microsoft is investing in companies such as US firm LanzaJet, which received a $50m investment just over a year ago from Microsoft and is part of Microsoft’s billion-dollar Climate Innovation Fund.
“LanzaJet is taking feedstock and even waste and they’re using it to create sustainable aviation fuel that can power jets while reducing carbon emissions,” explains Smith.
“This is a great example of the kinds of technological innovations that can ensure that prosperity and travel and people getting together can continue – even while we reduce carbon emissions.”
Another non-profit, TerraPraxis, looks at the generation of coal and how coal plants can be repurposed to produce carbon-friendly energy. “There are more than 5000 coal-powered electricity plants in the world, which generate 37% of the world’s electricity,” Smith explained.
“Let’s remember, we live in a time when electricity has still not reached 770 million people on our planet,” so while it is quite heavily used, it still needs to expand.
Coal emits a lot of carbon – last year 29% of the world’s carbon emission came from those 5,000 coal plants. What London-based TerraPraxis realised however is that these coal plants have the potential to be converted, repurposed, and repowered to run small modular reactors, or fourth-generation nuclear reactors – both of which produce carbon-friendly energy through nuclear power.
If a factory was repurposed, “you could cut the cost of building a new power plant by up to 30% while at the same time replacing carbon-emitting energy to carbon-friendly energy”, said Smith.
As a non-profit, Smith points out that TerraPraxis is not in this for monetary gain but simply to help the environment. So,“they’re taking all of the knowledge and expertise, and they’re standardising it, and they’re making it available for free to coal plants around the world to accelerate their innovation,” he added.
By working with Microsoft and universities such as MIT, TerraPraxis hopes to regulate and accelerate the permitting process so that repurposing coal plants can move ahead faster.
Carbon capture tech
Last but not least, Microsoft is also partnering with Swiss carbon capture firm Climeworks which builds huge machines to capture carbon dioxide from the air through a technology called direct air capture.
Each of the machines are about “15 metres long, with giant fans that engage in direct air capture which effectively sponges and collect carbon”, explains Smith.
This carbon is then cooled and turned into a liquid, and then in “places around the world where the geology is right, such as Iceland and parts of North America, it goes underground where it’s collected in a mineral form where it will remain for literally thousands of years”.
By investing in these carbon-removal technologies, Microsoft can offset its own carbon emissions and achieve its carbon goals.
In fact, this time last year, Microsoft stated in its own report that investing in technologies such as direct air capture was more effective at offsetting carbon, than the nature-based projects they invest in such as planting more trees.
So, for Smith, a company like Climeworks is playing a big part in the tech giant’s proposed aim of removing five billion tons of carbon a year by 2050.
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