Microsoft shook up the debate about global warming last week by vowing to make its operations carbon-negative — meaning it will take more carbon out of the environment than it emits by 2030, and move rapidly to mop up the equivalent of every bit of carbon it has put into the atmosphere since its founding in 1975.
Some of Microsoft’s tricks for reducing its carbon emissions are already familiar — using electricity from renewable sources (electricity production accounts for one-third of U.S. carbon emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration), with Microsoft pledging to use 100% renewable electricity by 2025 topping the list. The company is also pursuing energy conservation measures at its buildings and switching to electric vehicles for use on its office campuses. Some of its challenges, like reducing emissions from business travel when there are no good carbon-free alternatives for most air travel, will also seem familiar.
“There’s a lot of discussion about who is going to roll out the strategy next,″ said Erica Belmont, an assistant engineering professor at the University of Wyoming and co-author of an influential 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study on how to go beyond conservation, as Microsoft wants to do, to actually removing carbon that’s in the air now.
That will be the hard part. And it may require a big assist from companies Microsoft sells to, companies it buys products and services from, and any office worker running Windows. Along with offsetting carbon emitted by Microsoft’s suppliers, the electricity your computer or phone is using to read this story is a source of energy use that produces many times more carbon than Microsoft itself uses, the company says.
New technologies are getting cheaper
Microsoft is counting on everything from planting massive numbers of trees to soak up carbon and using technologies to capture carbon and sequester it in soil — burying it, essentially — to more exotic technologies, like direct air capture, in which arrays of machines take in ambient air, remove the CO2 from it, and use the carbon in chemicals or concrete. Another option is bioenergy produced from carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, which captures and contains carbon contained in plants when they are burned.
“We know this can be done,” said Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a former deputy assistant secretary of energy under President Barack Obama. “All of these technologies are where solar was in 2005 — not cheap, but about to get cheap.″
Microsoft also will use what amounts to private-sector carbon taxes, or fees it imposes on its supply-chain partners, and on itself for intracompany transactions, in order to raise the price of activities that use lots of carbon. Internal carbon taxes, now $15 a ton, will begin to be phased in on Microsoft’s partners this July, a company spokesperson said.
The company’s methods for reducing its carbon emissions to near zero are straightforward and similar to what other businesses and consumers are doing. Its ideas for actually pulling carbon out of the atmosphere are more long-term, and experts are split on which ideas have more potential.
Switching to renewable power is the easiest and most common idea. Fellow tech giant Apple has already reached its goal of powering 100% of its operations with green electricity, the company said in its 2019 sustainability report, as Alphabet says it has done for at least two years in a row. Amazon has pledged to reach 100% usage of renewable electricity by 2030.
Workers at Microsoft will see some of the changes, like the replacement of the buses Microsoft uses to ferry workers around its campuses with electric vehicles, and changes in buildings to make them more energy-efficient. The company also said it will be holding regular hackathons where employees can pitch conservation ideas.
The push to switch to renewable power sources reflects what’s happening across the economy. Including hydroelectricity, renewables now account for almost exactly 20% of U.S. electric power generation, according to the EIA. The percentage is much higher, almost 80% in Microsoft and Amazon’s home state of Washington, where the Columbia River and other waterways are abundant sources of hydropower. California got about 32% of its power from renewable sources in 2017, according to state reports, and is committed to reaching 100% by 2045.
Amazon, whose package deliveries require more vehicles than Microsoft’s business, made headlines last year by ordering 100,000 electric trucks from start-up Rivian, in which it has invested venture capital. It plans to make half of its deliveries carbon-free by 2030. Apple also has focused on making its products use less electricity, according to the company’s 2018 sustainability report.