When the UN’s landmark climate report was released in 2018, calling for urgent and unprecedented changes, Microsoft executives were told to “commit it to memory”, said Elizabeth Willmott, who leads the company’s carbon program. “And so we did.”
The report warned the world must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to avert catastrophic climate change. To achieve this, not only must the emissions released by countries and companies be dramatically curtailed, but billions of tons of carbon dioxide must be sucked out of the atmosphere.
These findings directly informed Microsoft’s climate policy, said Willmott. In January 2020, the company announced that it would be carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 it would have removed from the atmosphere all the carbon it has emitted since it was founded in 1975. By making this pledge, the company joined a small group of businesses, including Ikea and the software company Intuit, committed to going further than net-zero.
Microsoft is often ranked as a leading business on climate action. Its policies – from making it easier for people to repair their devices to launching software to help companies measure and manage carbon emissions – have been praised for going beyond the company’s own operations to the footprint of its suppliers and customers.
“Being a large, well-known brand, and putting a stake in the ground, talking publicly for years about the importance of climate change, is really critical,” said Simon Fischweicher, head of corporations and supply chains for the environmental non-profit CDP North America.
However, Microsoft has also been criticized for actions that appear to contradict its bold rhetoric on climate, including membership of trade associations that lobby against climate legislation, contracts with oil and gas firms and donations to politicians who obstruct climate policy.
These connections make it “complicit” in efforts to push against climate action, said Bill Weihl, a former sustainability executive at Google and Facebook and the founder of the advocacy group ClimateVoice.