2020 was another year for the record books: it was hottest year ever recorded (the hottest 7 years on record have all taken place since 2014), an area the size of Connecticut was lost to historic wildfires in California alone, and global biodiversity is in freefall as the next mass extinction quickens. In short, the warning lights of every major indicator we have are flashing and unfortunately, we are still moving in the wrong direction on climate change. But for all the bad news, there was some good too. 2020 saw Microsoft step forward with several bold new commitments to sustainability: by the end of the decade it would be a carbon negative, water positive, zero waste company that protects more land than it uses, promising to leverage its vast resources to create tech solutions and drive sustainable change across the entire economy.
As I look back at 2020, I see it as the year sustainability was finally elevated to its rightful place as an essential part of Microsoft’s corporate strategy and slowly but surely, its very culture. On January 9, 2020, I walked up to the microphone at the company’s first all-team meeting of the year and asked our CEO Satya Nadella, "How will you make sustainability a core cultural value at Microsoft? How will you make sustainability the next accessibility?" He essentially replied, “Stay tuned – we’re gonna have a lot more to say about this soon.”
Satya was foreshadowing January 15th, a mere 6 days later, when Microsoft unveiled its game-changing carbon negative announcement. I was sitting in the front row in Building 99 at Microsoft HQ in Redmond, WA that day, wondering what was about to happen. I watched as CEO Satya Nadella, Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood, President Brad Smith, and Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa took the stage to tell the world, “Those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so,” and that Microsoft would lead the way by leveraging its resources to make sustainable change happen faster, in line with the best available science. Watching President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith give a master class in carbon scope calculations was a sure sign things were different. As Vox, put it, “Climate change has moved out of the public relations department, into the C-suite, and down to the shop floor.” It was a turning point not only for Microsoft but for the overall debate on what role the private sector could play in addressing the climate crisis, where so many governments had failed to act.
At Microsoft, this moment represented something even more important: the awakening of our company’s ecological consciousness. This was a moment many of us in the Worldwide Sustainability Community (WWSC) had been working towards for years (if you work at Microsoft, follow this link to join us, aka.ms/joinwwsc). The carbon announcement was just the beginning and was quickly followed by three more sustainability commitments throughout the year: ecosystems in April (just in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the birth of the modern environmental movement!), waste in August, and water in October. The sum of these announcements was that Microsoft would become a carbon negative, zero waste, water positive company that protected more land than it used for all of its operations by 2030. Sustainability would now be an indispensable part of Microsoft’s future; the company was proudly taking a leadership role and would create scalable tech solutions others could use too. The number of customer requests asking how Microsoft could help them be more sustainable went from a slow trickle to a raging torrent in the blink of an eye.
In many ways, this represents a new beginning: the hardest work lies ahead, and the window of time to do it is rapidly closing. At the current rate, our global civilization will spend its remaining carbon budget in 7 short years, by 2027, representing how many more greenhouse gases we can emit into the atmosphere before we pass a tipping point likely to be a civilization ender. To put this in perspective: while Microsoft promises to be carbon negative by 2030 (pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere than it emits annually), the target date is three years after we’ve exhausted the planetary budget. Microsoft’s total carbon emissions (16 million metric tons in 2019) represent just .04% of the global annual total (40 billion metric tons). Even with the best of intentions, Microsoft is too small in the scheme of things to move the needle on our own. This is why such a big part of Microsoft’s strategy here is to empower customers, partners, and even competitors (we’re all Earthlings, after all) with new solutions themselves to create a wave of sustainable change across the entire economy.
Despite the grim reality that most things are moving in the wrong direction and we are running out of time, there are encouraging signs of progress. I can see interest sparking in other companies, companies that are looking to us for answers and for help. I see this progress happening every day from the conversations happening in our Worldwide Sustainability Community, watching as employees educate each other and point each other to answers to questions that weren’t being asked six months ago.
We are now 10% of the way into our 2030 journey - the next 90% will need to be about education, innovation, and most importantly, action in rapid succession. It will need to happen at hyper-scale: any solutions we develop need to be highly scalable to address truly planetary sized challenges within the timeframe. I believe the fastest way to make this happen is culture change at Microsoft, the first wave of which has begun, initiated both from the bottom-up grassroots and now, the top-down leadership. Where we meet in the middle is where we get the most inertia. In 2021, we will need to take action to translate Microsoft’s commitments into real change - and if you are an employee at Microsoft, we need your help. The WWSC was founded on the belief that everyone has something meaningful to contribute and you don’t need sustainability in your job title to drive change in this space. This reinforces that it is incumbent on all of us to apply our growth mindset and be constant learners when it comes to sustainability. We must grow our knowledge in this area so that we can take full advantage of the opportunity that lies before us. Only then will we understand how to leverage the vast resources of a trillion-dollar technology company to help solve the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.
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