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Microsoft brings a programmer’s approach to climate action

Nov 5, 2020
Precourt Institute

By Kate Gibson

Programmers write code, find what is not working, and then debug their program. It’s the same with climate change, said Microsoft’s chief environment officer, Lucas Joppa. The world cannot wait to have the perfect tools or know what climate change solutions will work, but instead must start now, experiment and iterate.

The company is bringing this mindset to its aggressive climate change targets, said Joppa, whose remarks were part of Stanford University’s Oct. 28 Global Energy Dialogues session. Joppa’s wide-ranging talk covered efforts to reduce emissions and develop carbon removal technologies. He also discussed the need for deeper collaboration and a holistic approach to the climate problem.

On the similarities between programming and addressing climate change: “You write the code, you run it. Does it compile? No. Why not? Ok, let’s figure it out. You keep going and then ultimately you build something,” said Joppa. “It’s not like we built Windows a long time ago and then stopped. We’re still building Windows. And, we’re bringing that same perspective to this issue.”

Greening Microsoft

In January, the tech giant announced that it will become carbon negative by 2030. By 2050, it plans to remove all the carbon from the environment that the company has emitted since its founding.

As part of its climate efforts, Microsoft plans to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. To accomplish this, it enters into direct power-purchase agreements, in which it buys enough renewable power to meet its energy demand. But, the company does not use that clean electricity directly.

headshot of Lucas Joppa
Lucas Joppa, Microsoft's chief
environmental officer.

The ideal would be to “ensure that 100 percent of the electrons that enter our facilities come from zero-carbon energy sources 100 percent of the time,” explained Joppa. However, “That’s not happening anywhere.”

Power-purchase agreements are not enough in the long run, said Joppa, but are an important step toward a clean-energy grid.

Microsoft plans to build out its Silicon Valley and Puget Sound campuses with LEED-platinum- and zero-carbon-certified buildings. Joppa recognizes the limitations of these certifications, which assess a building’s design, not its actual sustainability performance. Such design certifications play an important role as a directional signal for building design, he says, but people cannot stop there. 

“If we are going to properly stabilize our climate systems, it’s going to require a true accounting of our carbon emissions and removal,” he said. “We’re going to have to move away from estimates and toward actuals.”

To address this, Microsoft will report on its buildings’ emissions performance and will work to improve that performance, Joppa said. It is also developing software tools to help companies measure and manage building emissions.

Removing emissions

Microsoft aims to cut at least 50 percent of their emissions and will remove the rest from the atmosphere. This will amount to removing millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030.

“That means that we have got to get started now,” said Joppa.

The company requested proposals for removing one-million tons of CO2 and established a $1-billion climate innovation fund to accelerate the global development of carbon reduction and removal technologies.

aerial photograph of Microsoft data center in Cheyanne, WY, surrounded by green fields
Microsoft has worked to increase the energy efficiency of and clean energy used by its
data centers.

Joppa was interviewed by Arun Majumdar, director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy and professor of mechanical engineering, Sally Benson, professor in energy resources engineering, and Rebecca Grekin, master's student in energy resources engineering.

Asked by Benson about nature-based versus engineered carbon removal solutions, Joppa thinks both are likely to play a key role in achieving the world’s emissions reduction goals. But, he added, there are no silver bullets and both types of carbon removal face significant questions. For nature-based solutions like afforestation, we need to have a better sense of how much carbon is removed and for how long. Technology-based solutions, like direct air capture, need to become less expensive and more efficient, Joppa said.

A holistic perspective

Recognizing the need for deeper collaboration in the private sector on climate, nine companies including Microsoft have formed a coalition to share guidance and best practices with other companies looking to reduce emissions.

As for other tech companies, “We’re absolutely not competing on the climate side. We absolutely are competing on the tech side,” said Joppa with a smile.

Microsoft also engages U.S. elected officials and governments around the world on climate policy, according to Joppa.

Joppa stressed the need to have a holistic conversation around climate. We are dealing with a complex system with many interdependent parts, he said, but too often we approach the issue one dimension at time.

Instead, “We have to have the whole conversation all at once,” he explained. “Trying to do this in a one-at-a-time way is just going to crush us.”

The next Global Energy Dialogues session, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 11, will feature a conversation on the global impact of U.S. energy and climate policy with Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. Please visit the Global Energy Forum website to register. All sessions are held online and are free and open to the public.

The Global Energy Dialogues are funded by the Stanford Global Energy Forum.