The plan includes the creation of a “Climate Innovation Fund,” which will invest $US1 billion ($1.45 billion) over the next four years to speed up the development of carbon removal technology.
The announcement by the world’s largest software company reflects the rising profile of US corporate action after President Donald Trump announced in 2017 his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, the global pact to fight climate change.
Microsoft’s pledge to address its historical emissions may resonate with some developing nations, which say countries that created the most carbon — and wealth in the process — are not taking responsibility for their past pollution.
“While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so,” said company president Brad Smith. “By 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”
Co-founder Bill Gates was an early backer of British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering, among a handful of developers of direct air capture technology.
Carbon Engineering CEO Steve Oldham said the firm’s first direct air capture plant is under construction and is expected to capture 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Microsoft “is at the helm of what could be a new movement towards negative emissions,” said Elizabeth V. Sturcken of the Environmental Defense Fund, adding that the nonprofit advocacy group was eager for Microsoft to use its political influence as well.
But Sue Reid — vice president of climate and energy at US nonprofit Ceres, which works with companies on sustainability commitments — said the economics of direct air capture have yet to be worked out, and reforestation rates may not be fast enough to catch up with growing emissions.
“That math is all facing some new uncertainty and vulnerabilities tied to exacerbated climate change impact, (like there being) more wildfires,” she said.
Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, last year pledged to be “net zero carbon” by 2040 and to buy 100,000 electric delivery vans from a startup, after employee activists pushed the retailer to toughen its stance on climate change.
Microsoft plans to become net zero carbon a decade earlier, although its emissions are roughly a third of Amazon’s.
Microsoft expects to release 16 million metric tons of carbon in 2020, including indirect emissions from activities like corporate travel.
Amazon, whose cloud business is bigger than Microsoft’s, delivers billions of packages as the largest internet retailer and owns grocer Whole Foods. It emitted more than 44 million metric tons of carbon in 2018, including indirect sources.
It was not immediately clear if the figures reported by the companies were exactly comparable.
Microsoft and Amazon have come under fire from activist tech workers who have demanded that they stop supplying technology to oil and gas companies because of the polluting nature of fossil-fuel extraction. Microsoft in 2017 announced a multi-year deal to sell cloud services to US energy giant Chevron.
Microsoft Workers 4 Good, which says it represents Microsoft employees aiming to hold the company to its stated values, lauded the climate plan but said “this goal is incompatible with contracts that aim to increase oil extraction, a process which we know is not sustainable.”
In a blog post, Microsoft reiterated its commitment to working with oil and gas providers, saying it is “imperative that we enable energy companies to transition” to renewable energy and carbon-capture technologies.
Bill Weihl, former director of sustainability at Facebook, said Microsoft does not take into account that its work with oil companies could outweigh the gains of measures Microsoft takes on its own carbon reduction.
“There is good stuff here,” Weihl said. “But the topline message, that this is urgent, is not matched by what they’re focusing on.”