On Thursday, Microsoft CEO Brad Smith made a bold climate pledge: By 2030, he said the company will remove more carbon from the environment than it emits, and by 2050, will remove more carbon than the company has ever produced.
This is a big step up from Microsoft’s previous climate action plans. But it’s unclear what the plan will mean for the company’s contracts with oil and gas companies that are fuelling the climate crisis. And as long as Microsoft keeps helping these firms, its commitment to carbon negativity isn’t nearly as big a deal as it sounds.
Smith said in his announcement that Microsoft will transition its own operations to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, and shift its “global campus operations vehicle fleet” to electric by 2030. To provide transparency on their progress, it will also publish an annual Environmental Sustainability Report “based on strong global reporting standards.”
The company has been “carbon neutral” since 2012, but organisers say Microsoft relied too heavily on buying renewable energy credits to offset their carbon emissions, instead of lowering them directly. This comes less than a year after the company made other climate pledges, albeit ones that were less-than-stellar. But overall, the new plan makes some big promises that are decidedly good.
The company also has plans to reduce the carbon emissions down the supply chain. But the plan doesn’t say anything specific about decarbonizing companies it supplies services to, specifically cloud computing. Microsoft holds multi-year deals to sell cloud services to Shell and Chevron, and is developing artificial intelligence technology with BP.
In February, Microsoft announced a partnership with ExxonMobil that could expand the oil giant’s production by up to 50,000 barrels of oil a day by 2025 from the Permian Basin.
However it's important to note this goal is incompatible with contracts that aim to increase oil extraction, a process which we know is not sustainable.
— Microsoft Workers 4 Good (@MsWorkers4) January 16, 2020
“Teaming up with Exxon, BP, Chevron and others to extract more oil and gas is a major disconnect and makes the climate crisis worse” Greenpeace’s Senior Climate Campaigner Elizabeth Jardim said in a statement. “To truly become carbon negative, Microsoft must end its AI contracts with Big Oil.”
It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.
“The significance and complexity of the task ahead is incredible and will require contributions from every person and organisation on the planet. That’s why we are committed to continuing to work with all our customers, including those in the oil and gas business, to help them meet today’s business demands while innovating together to achieve the business needs of a net zero carbon future,” Microsoft’s plan reads (emphasis added).
The company’s carbon negative goal will also rely on technology that doesn’t exist today. To that end, Microsoft said it will also create a $US1 ($1) billion fund to speed up the development of carbon removal technology.
Carbon dioxide removal isn’t just something Microsoft is striving for. It’s also popular among big polluters. An alliance of 13 oil and gas majors pushed a carbon capture initiative in the fall. That follows a 2016 investment by 10 fossil fuel companies to put $US1 ($1) billion into developing the technologies. And it makes sense that polluting industries want this technology to advance, because it would in theory allow them to become carbon-neutral without changing their business models.
Microsoft promotes themselves to the fossil fuel industry as a tool to help extract more oil and gas more quickly (they’ve even sponsored a conference that featured Caleb Rossiter, a member of the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere). And with $US1 ($1) billion in carbon capture technology research on their side, they will likely continue to do so. There’s no harm in emitting greenhouse gases, the logic goes, if you can suck them out of the air afterward.
But the science shows we need to quickly phase out of extracting and using fossil fuels altogether. We don’t have time to wait for new technologies, which could take years to develop.
Gizmodo has reached out to Microsoft for comment and will update this story with their response.