On January 28, 2021 Microsoft released its first Environmental Sustainability Report “A Year of Action” documenting progress the company made since announcing its 2020 commitments to become a carbon negative, water positive, zero waste company that protects more land than it uses by 2030. Read more on those commitments in my previous blog post “2020 The Year of Sustainability.”
At 96 pages, one could spend weeks digesting the report and the companion blog posts published by Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa and President Brad Smith. Lucky for you, I read all of them and have distilled the report down to three short blog posts . This first post will focus on overall impressions, highlights, and key takeaways – think of it as the CliffsNotes version. Part Two will cover the carbon negative commitment, and Part Three will close out with a deeper look at water positive, zero waste, and ecosystems, including the mysterious Planetary Computer.
"A Year of Action" is beautiful, rich, and frankly, dense. Each page is a wealth of information, conveyed through brightly colored infographics, text, data visualizations, and hyperlinks that take the reader across the web to learn more about sustainability. The sheer volume of information says a lot about the progress Microsoft has made in year one and just as importantly, its commitment to transparency. Brad Smith addresses this in the forward:
"In Microsoft’s first annual sustainability report, we look back at how and why we made our commitments, details about them, progress to date, and key lessons we have learned. We intend to not only share our successes, but also share our challenges."
And there are plenty of challenges here. Beneath the flashy appearance and abundance of data lies a simple and unavoidable truth: what Microsoft is attempting to do is unprecedented and damn near impossible, not just for a single company, but for human civilization. This report is a microcosm of what we must do as a global society to successfully avoid the worst-case scenarios of a climate disaster. I work at Microsoft, I work in sustainability, I know many of the people who put this report together and still, I was awestruck by the depth and complexity of what the team attempted to do in year one, and just as importantly, what they'll have to do by 2030.
Highlights and progress to date
The bulk of the report focuses on progress made in each of the company’s four environmental focus areas: carbon, water, waste, and ecosystems. Let’s start with the big picture:
Here’s a list of the accomplishments so far. If you want to know more, be sure to check back in on part two and three of this series, where I’ll go deeper on these focus areas!
A company is carbon negative when it removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits each year (note, the term "carbon" is used as shorthand to refer to all kinds of greenhouse gases). Microsoft will achieve this through a combination of reduction and removal, making deep reductions first and foremost, then using removal only for the residual footprint.
A company is water positive when it puts more water back into the environment than it consumes. Microsoft will accomplish this through a combination of reduction and replenishment.
Zero waste is a set of principles focused on waste prevention that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles to reduce or eliminate waste generation. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators or the ocean. In practice, 100% waste diversion or elimination is simply not achievable so the goal is 90% diversion from landfill to achieve TRUE Zero Waste certification.
Nature, and the benefits that it provides, are the foundation of our society, cultures and the global economy. We depend on well-functioning ecosystems for clean air, water, food, medicine, energy and resources. Simply put, there is no human civilization if we continue to destroy the complex web of life that supports us.
Each of the above bullet points represents an enormous amount of work and an audacious desire to push the envelope on what role the private sector, and a tech company, can play in completely transforming the global economy. After all, governments make the rules society operates within, and governments around the world have utterly failed in their response to the climate crisis. Even a company as large and powerful as Microsoft has limited influence, but this report proves that the company is willing to see just how far that influence can go.
"Microsoft can't solve the world's environmental challenges alone, but we can play a significant role in driving a broader societal transformation if we use our positions of influence and our technologies to effectively bring others along with us on our sustainability journey." - Brad Smith
Further, “A Year in Action” provides a behind the scenes look at Microsoft's strategy to become the leading technology provider of sustainable solutions. In the process, it hopes to create a wave of sustainable change across the entire economy. My favorite sections were the “Key Learnings” at the end of each focus area where we get a glimpse of what went well, and more importantly, what didn’t. The humble approach and willingness to share this information is critical to ensuring others avoid the pitfalls Microsoft stumbled through in year one. This open, collaborative approach increases the chances that we will make the broad societal changes required for a livable future. Over the next nine years, we will get an answer to the big question – will it be enough? Lucas Joppa sums up the challenge and consequences of failure as succinctly as anyone:
“We have a limited amount of time to accomplish what will be the most significant behavioral and technological societal transformation in modern human history. By 2030, society must be well on its way to mitigating and adapting to rapidly changing climates, ensuring resilient water supplies, reducing the amount of waste we generate, and reversing the ongoing and catastrophic degradation of ecosystems while halting the extinction of species. That is why this must be a decade of ambition and action."
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