Part one: A review of the Microsoft 2020 Environmental Sustainability Report "A Year of Action"
Published Feb 05 2021 02:42 PM 12.5K Views

On January 28, 2021 Microsoft released its first Environmental Sustainability Report “A Year of Actiondocumenting 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 :smile:. 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.


First impressions


Table of ContentsTable of Contents


"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:

A short list of high level accomplishments in year oneA short list of high level accomplishments in year one

  • All up, Microsoft invested $129M across funds and organizations innovating in carbon reduction, water management, and circular economy (a system in which economic activity is decoupled from the consumption of scarce resources; waste is designed out, and there is an emphasis on repair, disassembly, and reuse.)
  • The biggest barrier to more progress isn’t something Microsoft can directly control. Universally accepted methodologies and standards for measuring and reporting on sustainability data don't exist yet. In some cases, Microsoft is leading the charge to create them. From what risk means, to carbon accounting standards, and the digitization of waste and water data, Microsoft spent its first year operating in uncharted territory as it tried to measure and report on its own progress in this space. Until we are all speaking the same language and using the same standards of measurement, progress will be incremental and fragmented.

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!


Carbon NegativeCarbon Negative

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.


  • Reduced emissions by 6% from 11.6M metric tons to 10.9M metric tons
  • Removed 1M metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere (commonly referred to as carbon sequestration) via Request for Proposal (RFP)
  • Delivered first tool to provide CO2 transparency for Azure via the Microsoft Sustainability Calculator
  • Became a founding member of the Transform to Net Zero coalition alongside other large corporates like Mercedes-Benz AG, Starbucks, Unilever and Wipro
  • Required that suppliers must report their GHG emissions through the updated Supplier Code of Conduct. As a result, top suppliers reduced their collective footprint by 21M metric tons
  • Secured a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with Sol Systems worth 500 megawatts to advance clean energy and environmental justice
  • Extended internal carbon fee emissions to include Scope 3 (indirect emissions from Microsoft's supply and value chain)


Water PositiveWater Positive

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.


  • Funded 20 water replenishment projects
  • Invested $10M in the Emerald Technology Ventures Global Water Impact Fund to support innovative technologies for water conservation, access and quality
  • Increased replenishment project portfolio by nearly 700% from fiscal year 2019
  • Launched water accessibility work to provide 1.5M people access to safe drinking water and sanitation
  • Co-founded the Water Resilience Coalition in partnership with the United Nations Global Compact CEO Water Mandate


Zero WasteZero Waste

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.


  • Diverted 60K metric tons of waste from landfills
  • Achieved Zero Waste Certification of datacenters in Dublin, Ireland and Boydton, Virginia
  • Piloted Circular Centers, which set the company on a path to increase reuse of servers in datacenters by 90% by 2025
  • Invested $30M in Closed Loop Partners' funds to help build a circular economy
  • 100% recyclable Surface devices (in applicable countries) by 2030
  • Engaged 10.5K employees in Ecochallenges to reduce personal waste footprints
  • Will eliminate single-use plastics in all Microsoft primary product packaging and all IT asset packaging in datacenters (100% of all cloud packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025)



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.


  • Begun the process of protecting more land than we use by 2025 (which is 11K acres or 44.5K square meters)
  • 10 petabytes of environmental data now available for free on Azure to the conservation community (a laptop hard drive is typically around 512GB now, so 10PB is around 20,000 typical laptops of data)
  • 700+ grantees in the AI for Earth program from over 100 countries
  • Began developing a Planetary Computer to better monitor, model and manage the world's ecosystems

Key takeaways

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."


  • Learn more about the carbon negative commitment in Part Two
  • Explore the water positive, zero waste, and ecosystems commitment in Part Three

Comments, questions, and conversation welcome below!




About the author: Drew Wilkinson is a climate activist, community organizer, and co-founder of

Microsoft’s 10,000 member employee sustainability community. He works for Planet Earth but provides

consulting services on the people side of sustainability: employee engagement, culture and change

management, community building, green skilling, and leadership development. Learn more on his

website or add him on LinkedIn.





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