Microsoft pledges to become carbon neutral

Living on Earth

The largest software company in the world is pledging to shrink its corporate carbon footprint — big time.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., with facilities in over 100 countries, is going carbon neutral, cutting greenhouse gases using a method most companies, and countries, have yet to consider: basically, a self–imposed tax.

Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, Rob Bernard, said Microsoft currently emits 1.5 to 2 million tons of carbon per year, an amount that is standard for a company of Microsoft’s size.

“Compared to most multi-national corporations, we’re certainly not at the lowest end but we’re certainly nowhere near the high end. Looking at other companies in our industry, we’re about the same,” he said.

The company hopes to eliminate its carbon footprint by using less energy in its services and operations, traveling less, and making the energy it uses as clean as possible.

Microsoft uses mostly hydroelectric and solar energy at its headquarters, but Bernard said in other places that use energy from coal and natural gas, the company could source cleaner energy or buy renewable energy credits.

With renewable energy credits, Microsoft can buy energy created cleanly from a company that creates it and sells it as a commodity. Microsoft can then get the credit for the clean electricity.

“The value to you as the creator is, because you know companies like Microsoft or others will buy that energy, it allows you to get the investment capital you need to create that new source of energy, which is precisely what we’re trying to ignite in the marketplace,” Bernard said.

He also said Microsoft is creating an internal carbon price, which means that in every country Microsoft operates, each division of the company will be responsible for the cost of their emissions.

Microsoft is not calling it a self-imposed tax, but rather a carbon fee.

The fee is calculated by taking into account a “carbon factor” that estimates the amount of carbon used in daily activities.

“If you were to fly to come see us here in Seattle, we’d know what plane you’re taking, what the carbon factor is, how many miles you’re flying, what class you flew. If you were to turn on your lights in your office when you went to work in one office at Microsoft around the world, we know how much energy that you’re using and we know what the carbon factor for that office is,” Bernard said. “So we can actually calculate how much carbon are you using in all of the activities that you’re dong around the company.”

Though other companies like Google have already pledged to go carbon neutral, Bernard said it took Microsoft more time to decide how to effectively approach carbon neutrality and put the system in place.

“I think we’re most interested in how can we make a difference in our own backyard. And then, hopefully, extend that to our customers and partners and if others want to follow our example, that’s great. But the primary thing for us is really thinking about how do we motivate and change behavior in our own company and see if that’s extensible to others as well,’ Bernard said.

Microsoft has already had a large presence at climate summits and wants to have a binding climate treaty for the company.

“I think people recognize…we have a long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability, that this is the right thing to do. And so, they recognize that things are going to change as society focuses more and more on the issues surrounding energy use, water use, and a whole bunch of resource use around the world,” Bernard said. “We’re hoping that by leading by example, we’ll learn a lot of stuff, and we’ll be able to inform, not only other companies and our customers, but also, potentially, a bunch of governments around the world.”

Microsoft is kicking off the program July 1. Bernard said they hope to create a continuous learning process to see how effective the program at driving down energy use and air travel, and making sure it makes meaningful investments in clean energy around the planet.

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