Microsoft is doubling down on its commitment to cut operational carbon emissions by 75% in the next 11 years. In a blog post this evening, company president Brad Smith outlined the steps Microsoft will take to “address sustainability challenges” in a “tech-first” fashion — some of which will involve artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“[T]he magnitude and speed of the world’s environmental changes have made it increasingly clear that we must do more,” Smith wrote. “And we are taking new steps to do just that.”
On the datacenter side of things, in 2016 Microsoft announced a goal to use 50% renewable energy in all of its facilities by the end of last year, and the company now says it’s ahead of schedule and on track to reach 60% by the end of this year. It will seek to surpass 70% by 2023, in part with a new “data-driven” cloud initiative that will employ internet of things (IoT) devices, blockchain technology, and AI to monitor performance and “streamline” the reuse, resale, and recycling of datacenter hardware. Additionally, Microsoft says it’ll launch a water replenishment program by 2030 that will replace the resources its server farms consume in “water-stressed” regions.
For the sake of comparison, Apple and Google say they power 100% of their operations with renewable electricity, and Amazon hit 50% renewables for its datacenters in January 2018. (Of the three, Google is the largest buyer of renewable energy, with contracts to purchase over 3 gigawatts of output.) Meanwhile, Facebook has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint by 75% and reach 100% renewable energy by 2020.
Microsoft also says that it’ll host “leading environmental [government] data science sets” containing petabytes of satellite and aerial imagery (among other things) on Azure, its cloud platform, with the goal of supporting the work of researchers around the world. Moreover, it says it’ll double its carbon fee — the internal tax it established in 2012 to quantify its divisions’ progress in reducing emissions — to $15 per metric ton of all carbon emissions. (The tax contributes to a $30 million annual fund for energy improvements.) And it claims it’ll reduce the amount of carbon associated with the ongoing expansion of its Redmond, Washington campus — which will include 17 new buildings totaling 2.5 million square feet — by “at least” 15%, and up to 30%.
To underline its commitment to sustainability and demonstrate emerging tech’s potential to advance the cause, Microsoft commissioned a report with Pricewaterhouse Coopers UK that shows greater adoption of AI across industries might reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 4% while boosting global gross domestic product by up to 4.4%. That’s equivalent to approximately 2.4 gigatons of CO2, Smith points out — equal to the annual emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined.
“By making them available in our cloud, we will advance and accelerate the work of grantees and researchers around the world,” Smith wrote. “We will also continue work to bring new APIs and applications … and mature projects into platform-level services, as we’ve done with landcover mapping.”
Lastly, Microsoft says it’s joining the Climate Leadership Council, an international organization created to develop a national carbon pricing approach. Founding members include energy companies like ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and BP, as well as General Motors, Pepsi, Santander, and individuals such as billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.
“[We] believe it’s time for a robust national discussion on carbon pricing to lower emissions in an economically sound way. This roadmap is far from complete, but it’s a first step in our renewed commitment to sustainability,” Smith wrote. “Time is too short, resources too thin, and the impact too large to wait for all the answers to act. There’s an incredible opportunity to be realized by acting, supported by data and technology, on climate change.”