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    Can Microsoft's 'moonshot' carbon goal succeed?

    January 18, 2020

    Tech giant Microsoft has announced two bold ambitions: firstly, to become carbon negative by the year 2030 - meaning it will be removing more carbon from the air than it emits - and secondly, to have removed more carbon by 2050 than it has emitted, in total, in its entire history.In an interview with the BBC's Chris Fox, Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted that the plan was a "moonshot" - a very big idea with no guaranteed outcome or profitability - for the company.He stressed there was simultaneously a sense of urgency and a need to take the time to do the job properly.He also said that the tools required don't entirely exist yet.

    Mr Smith talked about tree planting, and direct air capture - a way of removing carbon from the air and returning it to the soil - as examples of available options."Ultimately we need better technology," he said.But don't expect Microsoft to roll up its sleeves: "That's not a business we will ever be in but it's a business we want to benefit from," he added, announcing a $1bn Climate Innovation Fund, established with the intention of helping others develop in this space.He expects support from the wider tech sector, he said, "because it's a sector that's doing well, it can afford to make these investments and it should."

    CES in Las Vegas, the huge consumer tech show, has just ended. It was attended by 180,000 people most of whom probably flew there, to look at mountains of plastic devices clamouring to be the Next Big Thing.From gas-guzzling cars and power-hungry data centres to difficult-to-recycle devices and the constant consumer push to upgrade to new shiny plastic gadgets - the tech sector's green credentials are not exactly a blueprint for environmental friendliness despite much-publicised occasional projects.There was no immediate announcement from fellow tech giants about any collaborations with Microsoft, or indeed similar initiatives of their own - but the aim is ahead of the current ambitions of many, including Facebook, Google and Apple, which have not (yet) made a "carbon negative" commitment.That said, software-maker Intuit has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030, and Jeff Bezos announced in September 2019 that Amazon would be carbon neutral by 2040.
    Mr Smith made an open offer to share Microsoft's carbon-monitoring tools."Competition can make each of us better," he said of the notoriously rivalry-fuelled industry."If we make each other better the world is going to be better off and we should applaud each other as we take these new steps."Mr Smith agreed that "the switching on of an Xbox", Microsoft's games console, was as much part of the firm's carbon footprint as the carbon that went into creating the cement used in its buildings.However, he did not suggest scaling back on collaborations with the big energy firms - on the contrary, we are going to need more power rather than less in the coming decades, he said - and that has troubled campaigner Greenpeace."While there is a lot to celebrate in Microsoft's announcement, a gaping hole remains unaddressed - Microsoft's expanding efforts to help fossil fuel companies drill more oil and gas with machine-learning and other AI technologies," commented senior campaigner Elizabeth Jardim.

    Microsoft makes 'carbon negative' pledge
    16 January 2020
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    Related TopicsClimate change
    Image copyrightMICROSOFT
    Image caption
    Satya Nadella said that technology built without principles does more harm than good
    Microsoft has pledged to remove "all of the carbon" from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975.

    Chief executive Satya Nadella said he wanted to achieve the goal by 2050 .

    To do so, the company aims to become "carbon negative" by 2030, removing more carbon from the environment than it emits.

    That goes beyond a pledge by its cloud-computing rival Amazon, which intends to go "carbon neutral" by 2040.

    "When it comes to carbon, neutrality is not enough," said Microsoft president Brad Smith.

    "The carbon in our atmosphere has created a blanket of gas that traps heat and is changing the world's climate," he added in a blog.

    "If we don't curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic."

    The company also announced it was setting up a $1bn (£765m) climate innovation fund to develop carbon-tackling technologies.

    Carbon neutral v carbon negative
    When a business says it is carbon neutral, it aims to effectively add no carbon to the atmosphere.

    It can do this by:

    balancing its emissions, for example by removing a tonne of carbon from the atmosphere for every tonne it has produced
    offsetting its emissions, for example by investing in projects that reduce emissions elsewhere in the world
    not releasing greenhouse gases in the first place, for example by switching to renewable energy sources
    Until now, most companies have focused on offsetting emissions to achieve neutrality.

    This often involves funding projects in developing economies to reduce carbon emissions there, for example building hydroelectric power plants, encouraging families to stop using wood-based stoves, and helping businesses make use of solar power. These reductions are then deducted from the main company's own output.

    The result of this slows carbon emissions rather than reversing them.

    To be carbon negative a company must actually remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits.

    Microsoft says it will do this using a range of carbon capture and storage technologies.

    The announcement was largely welcomed by environmentalists, who said it showed Microsoft was thinking about the bigger climate change picture and not just its own role.

    "It's a hat trick of sustainability leadership," said Elizabeth Sturcken from the Environmental Defence Fund.

    "But to really shift the needle on climate change, we need 1,000 other [companies] to follow-suit and turn rhetoric into action."

    However, Greenpeace warned that Microsoft still needed to address its ongoing relationship with oil and gas companies.

    "While there is a lot to celebrate in Microsoft's announcement, a gaping hole remains unaddressed: Microsoft's expanding efforts to help fossil fuel companies drill more oil and gas with machine-learning and other AI technologies," said senior campaigner Elizabeth Jardim.

    British power plant promises to go carbon negative by 2030
    Old oil rigs could become CO2 storage sites
    Turning carbon dioxide into cash
    Microsoft's plan is still more aggressive than those taken by other tech firms, including Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, which have not made "carbon negative" commitments.

    How will Microsoft achieve its goal?
    Microsoft has suggested a range of ways it could remove carbon from the atmosphere, including:

    seeding new forests and expanding existing ones
    soil carbon sequestration - a process of putting carbon back into the ground. This could be achieved by adding microbes and nutrients to parched earth, which should have the added benefits of making the soil more fertile and less susceptible to erosion
    direct air capture - sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, possibly by using large fans to move air through a filter that can remove the gas
    bio-energy with carbon capture - growing crops and then capturing the CO2 they emit when, for example, they are burned to produce heat or fermented to make fuels such as bioethanol. Negative emissions become possible if the amount of CO2 stored as a result is greater than that emitted during production, transport and use
    Tech companies' manufacturing and data-processing centres create large amounts of carbon dioxide.

    By one estimate, the sector will account for up to 3.6% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions this year, more than double the level in 2007. And it has been forecast that in a worst-case scenario, this could grow to 14% by 2040.

    Microsoft has said it plans to halve emissions created directly by itself and those involved in its supply chain by 2030.

    One way the company intends to do this is by increasing the carbon fees it charges its internal business groups.

    Since 2012, Microsoft has forced its divisions to set budgets that take account of the cost of emissions created through electricity use, business travel and other activities.

    Now that charge will incorporate indirect emissions such as those created by customers using electricity to power the divisions' products.

    And since Microsoft cannot avoid producing CO2 altogether, it will invest in technologies to capture and store the gas to reduce the amount in the atmosphere.

    Mr Smith said this would involve tech "that doesn't fully exist today".

    The firm added that its data centres and other facilities would use 100% renewable energy by 2025.

    How do Microsoft's plans compare to rivals?
    Software-maker Intuit has also pledged to be carbon negative by 2030.

    The Californian company has said it will reduce emissions by 50 times more than its 2018 carbon footprint.

    Amazon's Jeff Bezos announced in September 2019 that his company would be carbon neutral by 2040.

    His pledge included plans to buy 100,000 electric vehicles for the online retailer's delivery fleet.

    Google has launched a set of digital tools to allow cities to track and reduce emissions. The search giant also offsets its own emissions by investing in green projects.

    British power plant promises to go carbon negative by 2030
    10 December 2019
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    Related TopicsClimate change
    Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    Drax, which generates 5% of the UK's power, has said it plans to capture more carbon than it produces by 2030.

    The firm's power plant in North Yorkshire is already largely powered by renewable fuel such as wood pellets.

    But now it hopes to scale up a system that will allow it to capture millions of tons of carbon emissions from the plant.

    However, the scheme will require its government subsidies - currently due to expire in 2027 - to be extended.

    Drax, which is the UK's largest power station, used to run exclusively on coal, but it has converted four of its six units to burn wood as the country seeks to end its dependence on finite fossil fuels.

    The firm said it plans to cut emissions in two ways. First, the sustainably farmed trees that provide its wood pellets absorb carbon emissions as they grow.

    What would carbon neutrality mean for the UK?
    UK 'has the technology' for zero carbon emissions
    The second takes place at the power plant site as carbon-capture technology traps the emissions created by burning the wood.

    At present, a pilot project at the site captures a tonne of carbon each day.

    But Drax said it hopes to install the system at two of its units by the end of the next decade, removing eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

    Image copyrightDRAX
    Image caption
    The power station's control room
    It also plans to close the two remaining coal-generating units at its North Yorkshire plant by 2025, although the company did not say how that would affect power output.

    Biomass power generation has proved controversial with some environmental campaigners.

    A Chatham House report from 2017 suggests burning wood is not carbon-neutral, as young trees planted as replacements absorb and store less carbon than the ones that have been burned. Others say it can lead to deforestation.

    But Drax defends the sustainability record of its biomass supply chain.

    However, the firm has yet to secure the subsidies it needs to help grow its carbon capture project to a scale that could make a difference to the UK's climate ambitions.

    The firm currently receives around £2m a day from the state to support its green transition, but this support will run out in less than 10 years.

    Prof Nilay Shah, head of the chemical engineering department at Imperial College London, told the BBC the country would need to produce up to 150 million tonnes of "negative emissions" to meet its net zero target.

    Drax boss Will Gardiner said: "The UK Government is working on a policy and investment framework to encourage negative emissions technologies, which will enable the UK to be home to the world's first carbon negative company.

    "This is not just critical to beating the climate crisis, but also to enabling a just transition, protecting jobs and creating new opportunities for clean growth - delivering for the economy as well as for the environment."


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