Microsoft taxing itself to reduce carbon

Technology giant Microsoft is imposing big costs on itself for emitting greenhouse gases in an effort to accelerate its sustainability goals. John Dyer reports.

Image credit: Efes Kitap via Pixabay

Microsoft is nearly doubling its internal carbon tax to $15 per metric tonne, effectively forcing its employees to consider their carbon footprint in their budgets and bottom lines.

The Seattle-based company is on track to reaching its seven-year-old goal of cutting carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, said Microsoft President Brad Smith. But warnings from experts that climate change is becoming more urgent led executives to become more ambitious.

“The magnitude and speed of the world’s environmental changes have made it increasingly clear that we must do more, and today Microsoft is taking steps to do just that,” Smith said in a statement. “We’re taking action to put our own house in order, while increasingly addressing sustainability challenges around the globe by engaging our strongest assets as a company – our employees and our technologies.”

The company is also investing in carbon-free technology, including a green campus, boosting artificial intelligence research for environmental applications, developing new sustainable cloud, devices and solutions, reducing water in regions where droughts are prevalent and joining the Carbon Leadership Council, a business group that lobbies officials to create a carbon market throughout the United States.

AI, cloud and big data can help reduce emissions

Microsoft’s pledge on artificial intelligence could be significant, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers UK study that the technology giant commissioned. The study found that artificial intelligence could help grow the global economy by 4.4 per cent, creating 38 million jobs annually, while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 4 per cent.

Microsoft announced a $50 billion budget for its AI for Earth programme in 2017.

“Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature,” said Celine Herweijer, global innovation and sustainability leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers UK in a note on the study.

The company is building 17 new buildings totalling more than 230,000 square metres that will not use fossil fuels. The rest of the campus will soon use only carbon-free electricity. Construction materials are slated to contain 15 to 30 per cent less carbon than traditional materials.

Other firms seeking to combat climate change and related issues are using Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing arm, Smith continued. Spain-based Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, for example, is using Azure and autonomous drones in the Hermes program to inspect wind turbines, replacing costly inspections with workers rappelling down the sides of the towering windmills.

“Hermes is taking a huge leap forward with the collaboration with Microsoft,” said Siemens Gamesa Chief Digital Officer Christian Sonderstrup in a blog post. “AI, cloud and big data enable us to move to the next level of performance, in terms of innovation and in lowering the levelised cost of renewable energy.”

‘Levelised’ refers to the cost of an asset divided by the amount of electricity produced over its lifetime.

Amazon employees call for action

Microsoft’s move comes as large American tech companies are moving to take action against climate change.

Six thousand Amazon employees recently signed a letter calling on Founder Jeff Bezos to draft a plan to address the company’s carbon footprint, which has come under fire as trucks and vans deliver Amazon packages around the world.

The letter followed an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last year that predicted that 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, which is slated to occur, would threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people and cause thousands of species to go extinct.

“Amazon’s leadership is urgently needed,” said the letter. “We’re a company that understands the importance of thinking big, taking ownership of hard problems, and earning trust. These traits have made Amazon a top global innovator but have been missing from the company’s approach to climate change.”

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