Achieving Sustainability Together: The Environmental Value of Partnership

Microsoft is pursuing its sustainability goals and is helping partners and customers follow suit


In a ‘State of the Planet’ address at Columbia University in December 2020, United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres urged every country, city and company to adopt plans for a transition to net zero emissions by 2050.

At the start of the same year, Microsoft made a ‘moonshot’ pledge to become carbon negative by 2030. It also promised that by 2050 it will remove from the environment all the carbon that the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.

“While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith, at the time of the announcement. “That’s why we are announcing an ambitious goal and a new plan to reduce and ultimately remove Microsoft’s carbon footprint.”

There has been immediate progress, with a 6 per cent reduction in annual carbon emissions to 10.9 tonnes in the year to January 2021. Microsoft has been exploring the purchase of renewable energy for all of its data centres by 2025 and will eliminate its use of diesel fuel by 2030. It has also created a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund, of which $50 million will be invested in the Energy Impact Partners’ global platform, which works with energy providers to transition towards cleaner fuels.

Microsoft has also collaborated with partners to affect environmental change outside of its own organisation. It formed the Transform to Net Zero coalition with founding members A.P. Moeller – Maersk, Danone, Mercedes-Benz, Natura & Co., Nike, Starbucks, Unilever and Wipro to help businesses reach their sustainability goals.

“We cannot achieve our sustainability ambitions alone – this update reflects an extraordinary amount of hard work and dedication across Microsoft and with customers, partners, non-governmental organisations and others around the world,” said Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer at Microsoft, during an announcement at Inspire 2020. “Working together, we can build a more sustainable future.”

Michelle Lancaster, director of sustainability partnerships, sales and products at Microsoft, has witnessed the acceleration in the company’s sustainability journey and is proud to help customers follow suit.

“We have been working with very large commercial customers in this space that are looking at not only reducing their footprint, but also at how they can adapt and change their business,” she says.

One such customer is BP. The oil and gas business has been working with Microsoft on its commitment to become a more diversified energy provider. Using the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), Microsoft is helping BP to drive decarbonisation efforts by understanding its existing business, helping it to become more efficient and reducing its methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations.

“But we’ve also been working with the business on how to reimagine its offshore oil rigs,” says Lancaster. “For example, we want to answer questions such as ‘Where are the best locations to transform those into offshore wind sites?’ We want to understand what the pace of transformation will be and how best to utilise BP’s assets in that transformation. IoT, deep data, analytics and digital twins are all part of this.

“We have a growing interest in renewable energy and a commitment to be fully renewable by 2025. In addition to us helping BP with that work, BP is also a strategic renewable energy partner for Microsoft.”

There are also many small companies playing an important role in sustainability. For example, SilviaTerra uses AI to understand the health and species of trees for capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. It began working with Microsoft through the AI for Earth programme, which was set up to help small and mid-size non-profits to access Microsoft Azure and training resources to combine environmental science with computer science.

“Forestry is still a really big business and trees are now valuable for both their timber and their carbon sequestration abilities,” says Lancaster. “It is important to know the overall state of forest health, especially for carbon offset projects.

“We worked with SilviaTerra to move its mapping applications onto Azure. Using satellite imaging and AI to fill in the gaps, the firm can look at any plot of land and find out the number, species, height and health of the trees. These are the key factors in estimating their carbon value.”

Microsoft’s sustainability commitments have focused heavily on removing carbon from the atmosphere. It has invested in 26 offset projects to remove 1.3 million metric tons of carbon and its partnership with SilviaTerra is building on this commitment.

“We have also worked with the firm to take its algorithm to organisations that certify land for carbon-offset projects and we have agreed to purchase the first set of the carbon offsets that are generated as a result of their calculation,” says Lancaster.

Many organisations are aware of human impact on the environment and seek more sustainable operations, but struggle to implement procedures to affect change. Lancaster says that Microsoft can help address this.

In 2020, for example, Microsoft launched its Sustainability Calculator to help businesses measure the carbon emissions that result from their cloud usage and provide insights on how to reduce them.

“This service not only helps customers understand the carbon value of using our products,” says Lancaster. “It also helps with reporting and is the first time that we’ve seen a business provide that level of transparency down to the customer level.

“If you’re using our services, we want you to have a really clear view of the carbon footprint of those services. We’re excited about this as it means that the carbon footprint associated with our services is going to continue to lessen over time. Just as our customers can trust Microsoft technology for its security and privacy protections, they can also trust us to handle that baseline sustainability concern.”

Microsoft is also building a suite of products and solutions to help businesses better understand the full breadth of their carbon footprint and help them reduce it.

“Sustainability is a part of our DNA at Microsoft,” says Scott Harden, chief technology officer of worldwide energy at Microsoft. “Our team’s charter is to take the best practices from our own sustainability efforts and look at how we can leverage it for our customers and partners. This way they are able to push forward with their energy transition to meet their sustainability goals.

“We are also collaborating with other global technology pioneers to learn from their experiences in this space. For example, we have a strong marketing relationship with engineering and industrial software leader AVEVA, and we work perfectly in sync together. We are also developing partnerships with our customers and working with them closely on joint initiatives.

Investing in sustainability is a win-win for everyone. We have seen top energy customers leaning in wholeheartedly to sustainability commitments. Today, there is more awareness that developing a circular carbon economy not only saves the planet but also greatly benefits businesses.”For additional insights on this topic from Microsoft partners, read the full article in the Spring 2021 issue of The Record. For more articles about enterprise technology on the Microsoft platform, subscribe to the free digital edition of The Record

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