Can Microsoft's 'moonshot' carbon goal succeed?

  • Published
baby tree in handsImage source, Getty Images

Tech giant Microsoft has announced two bold ambitions: firstly, to become carbon negative by the year 2030 - meaning it will be removing more carbon from the air than it emits - and secondly, to have removed more carbon by 2050 than it has emitted, in total, in its entire history.

In an interview with the BBC's Chris Fox, Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted that the plan was a "moonshot" - a very big idea with no guaranteed outcome or profitability - for the company.

He stressed there was simultaneously a sense of urgency and a need to take the time to do the job properly.

He also said that the tools required don't entirely exist yet.

Mr Smith talked about tree planting, and direct air capture - a way of removing carbon from the air and returning it to the soil - as examples of available options.

"Ultimately we need better technology," he said.

But don't expect Microsoft to roll up its sleeves: "That's not a business we will ever be in but it's a business we want to benefit from," he added, announcing a $1bn Climate Innovation Fund, established with the intention of helping others develop in this space.

He expects support from the wider tech sector, he said, "because it's a sector that's doing well, it can afford to make these investments and it should."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Microsoft President Brad Smith

But historically, isn't it also one of the worst offenders?

CES in Las Vegas, the huge consumer tech show, has just ended. It was attended by 180,000 people most of whom probably flew there, to look at mountains of plastic devices clamouring to be the Next Big Thing.

From gas-guzzling cars and power-hungry data centres to difficult-to-recycle devices and the constant consumer push to upgrade to new shiny plastic gadgets - the tech sector's green credentials are not exactly a blueprint for environmental friendliness despite much-publicised occasional projects.

There was no immediate announcement from fellow tech giants about any collaborations with Microsoft, or indeed similar initiatives of their own - but the aim is ahead of the current ambitions of many, including Facebook, Google and Apple, which have not (yet) made a "carbon negative" commitment.

That said, software-maker Intuit has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030, and Jeff Bezos announced in September 2019 that Amazon would be carbon neutral by 2040.

Mr Smith made an open offer to share Microsoft's carbon-monitoring tools.

"Competition can make each of us better," he said of the notoriously rivalry-fuelled industry.

"If we make each other better the world is going to be better off and we should applaud each other as we take these new steps."

Mr Smith agreed that "the switching on of an Xbox", Microsoft's games console, was as much part of the firm's carbon footprint as the carbon that went into creating the cement used in its buildings.

However, he did not suggest scaling back on collaborations with the big energy firms - on the contrary, we are going to need more power rather than less in the coming decades, he said - and that has troubled campaigner Greenpeace.

"While there is a lot to celebrate in Microsoft's announcement, a gaping hole remains unaddressed - Microsoft's expanding efforts to help fossil fuel companies drill more oil and gas with machine-learning and other AI technologies," commented senior campaigner Elizabeth Jardim.

Environmental awareness, especially among the under-30s, will ultimately prove to be a big driver for market change, Mr Smith believes.

"I think it's interesting to think about a future where buying a product and understanding how much carbon was emitted to create it is like going to the supermarket and looking at what's on the shelf and seeing how many calories it contains," he said.