In 2012, before declaring your company “carbon neutral” was de rigueur, Microsoft committed to that standard across its operations. Since then, Microsoft has continued to take steps toward cleaning up its own act, purchasing enough green power to equal its electricity consumption, investing in reforestation projects, and setting the target of reducing its emissions 75% by 2030.
Even though Microsoft has worked diligently to advance sustainable practices, its approach, says Lucas Joppa, the company’s chief environmental officer, has remained fairly internal. “We’ve been so focused on reducing the environmental footprint of our own operations–that was really the traditional focus,” Joppa says. Now, the company feels that it’s time to expand its its approach. Through a new set of sustainability commitments, Microsoft wants to turn its sustainability efforts outward, through making its artificial intelligence and tech tools more widely available for use in environmental research, and through new research and advocacy efforts in the environmental field.
“The reason we’re doing this is almost perfectly correlated with impatience,” Joppa says. “The reality shows that no matter how successful we are, sustainability actions inside of our own four walls are entirely insufficient for moving the world toward an environmentally sustainable future.” The same logic applies across the corporate world: No matter how much an individual company works to achieve personal sustainability goals, it’s not going to create the kind of large-scale change we need to combat climate change.
Microsoft’s plan is to turn what it does well–technology and AI–outward to support climate action. It will aggregate and host environmental data sets on its cloud platform, Azure, and make them publicly available (it’s also using AI to make its Azure data centers run more efficiently). Those data sets, according to Microsoft, are too large for researchers to use without advanced cloud computing, and hosting them on Azure should ease that issue.
The company will also scale up the work it does with other nonprofits and companies tackling environmental issues through a data lens. Microsoft has already worked in concert with the water management company Ecolab to develop a tool to assess and monetize a company’s water usage, and how much they would save–both in financial and environmental terms–by driving down their consumption and waste. They’ll also work with The Yield, a company that uses sensors to assess weather and conditions for farmers, to improve the operations of their tools and equip them with AI that will help them predict weather patterns and soil conditions in advance. And they’re equipping SilviaTerra, a startup that uses AI to monitor global forest populations, with the tools it needs to store and analyze vast amounts of data.
Alongside these partnerships, Microsoft is also working to prove that these types of data-driven projects can deliver enormous benefits to both the environment and the economy. Through research conducted with PwC, Microsoft looked at how AI could be applied across four sectors with implications for the planet: agriculture, water, energy, and transportation. “Even just for a few different sectors, and a few different levers in those sectors, a rapid adoption of AI-based technology has the potential to not only make significant gains for the environment, but also for the GDP overall,” Joppa says. Microsoft found that advancing AI usage across those four sectors could boost global GDP by as much as 4.4% by 2030, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 4% in the same time period. “We need to get past the idea that acting on climate will slow economic growth,” Joppa says.