Tackling environmental sustainability from the inside out at Microsoft

Aug 13, 2019   |  

Microsoft operates 100 percent carbon neutral. It also levies an internal carbon tax on its own business units to help pay for climate change and environmental sustainability initiatives, including giving technology grants to environmental projects outside of Microsoft.

Both are part of being a good steward of the environment, says Elizabeth Willmott, carbon program manager at Microsoft, but they are only a beginning. There is a much bigger opportunity within reach.

“Microsoft is in a unique position with its enormous network of customers, partners, and suppliers,” Willmott says. “We have an incredible reach with our software and services, and with our devices. If we can use that reach to drive positive change for the environment, then we can really start to help the planet.”

[Read this case study on how Microsoft is using machine learning to minimize its carbon footprint and reduce its energy consumption.]

Employees are asking about and encouraging Microsoft’s efforts all the time, and the company’s leaders are also pushing to find ways to do more.

“This is definitely a year when we’re on the move in terms of doing a lot more on sustainability,” says Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, speaking to company employees at a recent internal event. “It starts with getting our house in order, but then it ultimately connects to how we can help everyone on the planet use technology to drive sustainability goals.”

To mitigate its impact on the climate, the company’s efforts have been in three main areas: decreasing its carbon emissions through energy efficiency and conservation; moving to renewable energy for its datacenters and buildings; and offsetting the carbon emissions of business air travel.

“We’re on a leadership path in these areas,” Willmott says. “Now we are leaning in to encourage and help our suppliers, our partners, and our customers to do the same.”

Levying a tax for good

Microsoft charges internal teams a tax of $15 per metric ton on all operational carbon emissions, a fee that just went up from the approximately $8 per metric ton charged previously. The money is paid into a sustainability fund that is used to achieve carbon neutrality via efficiency, renewable energy, and offsets. From there it is granted to Microsoft internal teams and external organizations to address climate change and other environmental sustainability priorities. This process is transparent, and the investment areas are tracked publicly on Microsoft’s Sustainability Fund Power BI Dashboard.

Among those investments to accelerate progress is Microsoft’s AI for Earth program, a commitment by Microsoft to spend $50 million over five years to support projects that use Microsoft’s AI and machine-learning technology to tackle environmental challenges, says Bonnie Lei, AI for Earth program manager at Microsoft.

“We’re supporting individuals and organizations that are building AI models that are broadly useful for the environment,” Lei says. “We want to provide exponential impact with our investment, and so we work with our partners to make these models available on the AI for Earth website to the wider public.”

For example, Microsoft is supporting SilviaTerra, a California company that is using an AI for Earth grant to create a national forest inventory, which is now being piloted in an effort to help people who own small private forest land receive payment for keeping that land forested.

“They created machine-learning algorithms that were scaled through Microsoft Azure to create the first map of every single tree in every forest in the continental US, down to the tree’s species and size,” Lei says.

Landowners can use those maps to better manage their land, and, more importantly, they are testing a new approach to qualify their lands as viable carbon offsets. This means that, for the first time, these owners can be paid to keep their land forested by companies looking to offset their carbon emissions.

“Previously, they were not able to enter the carbon market due to the high cost of overhead and monitoring,” Lei says. “Now they have more incentive and a way to value keeping their forest stands standing.”

Landowners are also leveraging the maps to improve how they manage their land, including better preparing themselves for fire danger and drought.

Easing the environmental cost of buildings

One of the core ways Microsoft aims to reduce its carbon footprint is by transforming how it constructs and manages its buildings.

The company is currently rebuilding part of its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and it’s seeking to do so in ways that slash the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere that is typical of new construction, says Katie Ross, global sustainability program manager for Microsoft Real Estate and Security.

“Traditionally, the building sector has been focused on operational carbon,” says Ross, referring to the carbon associated with the energy used to run a building. “But that’s only half of the carbon problem in the building sector—the other half is embodied carbon, or the carbon that is emitted when building materials are manufactured.”

Think about the latter as “upfront carbon.”

“It’s the carbon you expend before you even flip the switch to turn on the building,” Ross says.

Unlike operational carbon, which you can reduce to zero over the life of the building by implementing energy-efficiency programs and by sourcing renewable energy, embodied carbon was emitted to make that concrete—to pull the raw materials out of the ground, to process them, and so on.

“That’s a carbon footprint number you can only reduce when you pick the material, and once the building is built, you cannot change it,” Ross says.

Microsoft is constructing 17 new buildings on its east campus—a total of 2.5 million square feet of new space.

“We knew we wanted to tackle both sides of the carbon equation, with the aim to build zero-carbon buildings,” Ross says. “To get there, we’re focusing on reducing our energy usage, we’re sourcing 100-percent carbon-free electricity, we’re removing natural gas—including for cooking—in our cafes, and we’re using a new tool, Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3), to track and reduce our embodied carbon.”

Microsoft is partnering with the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum and the global project-development and construction company Skanska to pilot EC3 on its new campus. This open-source, free-to-use tool is helping the Microsoft Real Estate and Security construction team assess the embodied carbon within construction materials it considers for the project.

“A lot of this is unchartered territory,” Ross says.

Efforts by corporations to track and reduce the embodied carbon impact of their buildings are in their infancy, she says.

“So far we are on target to reduce our embodied carbon emissions by 15 to 30 percent,” she says. “We are learning a lot about what’s possible by piloting this tool and hope to create a roadmap to support the industry targeting embodied carbon reductions in future projects.”

Energy and airplanes

Willmott says that one of the most notable ways Microsoft has made an impact on the environmental sustainability side is by procuring renewable energy to power the company’s datacenters.

So far, Microsoft has procured enough renewable energy to power 60 percent of its datacenter load by the end of this calendar year. The goal is to continue on a path to power 100 percent of its datacenters with renewable energy.

One area the company is exploring to further shift behavior and reduce carbon emissions is by encouraging employees to skip carbon-intensive airline trips in favor of using Microsoft Teams to meet and collaborate.

When employees do fly, Microsoft offsets the associated emissions by investing in verified carbon-offset projects, such as a first-of-its-kind forest conservation project in King County, Washington. The company’s environmental sustainability team vets all offset projects closely to ensure that they are having a measurable impact.

“These investments have supported the protection of 5.1 million acres of sensitive land worldwide,” Willmott says. But even though scaling up the impact of these “natural climate solutions” investments is meaningful, the team is very aware that avoiding carbon emissions altogether is the first and best line of action.

It’s all part of Microsoft’s commitment to sustainability, Willmott says.

“We’re using Microsoft tools and purchasing decisions to prove what our research has told us—that AI and other technologies can help usher in a low-carbon transition and protect the planet from catastrophic degradation,” she says.

If there were significantly greater adoption of AI in key sectors, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced enough to zero out the annual emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined.

“There is so much we can do if we all work together on this,” Willmott says. “Let’s go do this.”

Read this case study on creating business intelligence with Azure SQL Database and this case study on using machine learning to develop smart energy solutions to see how Microsoft is using technology to minimize its building footprint and reduce its energy consumption.

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