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Posted: 2020-01-16 19:25:42

Microsoft's Finnish headquarters in Espoo are shown in 2016. The company has announced new, more ambitious climate change targets for the coming decades. Vesa Moilanen/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Vesa Moilanen/AFP via Getty Images

Microsoft has announced an ambitious plan to not just reduce its carbon emissions, but actively remove carbon from the atmosphere — going "carbon negative" by 2030.

And by 2050, the tech giant pledges it will "remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975."

As the world faces the increasingly dire effects of climate change, which is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, a growing number of companies have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions.

It's much rarer to pledge to go carbon negative; in that, Microsoft is joining Ikea and a handful of much smaller companies.

And vowing to remove all the emissions the company ever released is even more unusual.

"I've never seen that before," says Cynthia Cummis, the director of private sector climate mitigation at the World Resources Institute.

Cummis says that Microsoft's commitment is also noteworthy for its level of detail.

The company already pushes employees to consider emissions while making business decisions. Microsoft says it will adapt that policy to reduce emissions not just within the company but across its entire supply chain. It says it will cut its own emissions to "near zero" by using 100% renewable energy and relying on electric vehicles.

"They're going to decarbonize at a very fast rate and then [use] carbon removals to balance out those remaining emissions," Cummis says. "That's what's in line with science and what we want to see all companies doing."

Extinction Rebellion UK, a climate change activist group, called Microsoft's announcement "an important step in the right direction."

The group added: "Who will follow next?"

Removing — not just avoiding — carbon emissions

Microsoft, which is one of NPR's sponsors, says it has been "carbon neutral" for years, by reducing emissions and paying for offsets for what remained.

But those offsets, while they may have kept new carbon dioxide from being released, did not usually involve taking existing emissions out of the atmosphere. The company's new policy will place a much stronger emphasis on such carbon removal.

"Neutral is not enough to address the world's needs," Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in the announcement Thursday.

Planting trees is one way to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. Higher-tech strategies are also being researched, including direct air capture: pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it in storage.

"It's not a new technology," says David Goldberg, a Columbia University research professor who studies carbon removal and storage. Small-scale installations are active now. But "scaling that technology up to where it could be very, very effective and viable for a large-scale capture and storage ... that's earlier in the development phase," Goldberg says.

Microsoft is pledging to create a $1 billion fund to invest in developing such technology, similar to other climate-focused funds (including one spearheaded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.)

Some environmental groups have long been skeptical of climate pledges that rely heavily on carbon removal. They've argued that such plans allow companies to avoid reducing their emissions, instead emitting carbon today while pledging to remove it — somehow — in the future.

But there's growing consensus that carbon removal technology, paired with dramatic reductions in emissions, will be essential for any successful fight against climate change.

"There are a lot of emissions up in the atmosphere already, unfortunately," says Paula DiPerna, an expert on climate change mitigation. "I think the emphasis on removal is welcome."

In announcing the new climate change goals, Microsoft is not backing away from its work with oil and gas companies. Instead, it argues that oil and gas companies need to "meet today's business demands" while working to transition toward a zero-carbon future.

Greenpeace, while welcoming Microsoft's announcement overall, said the continued work with fossil fuel companies is "a gaping hole" in Microsoft's climate plan.

Microsoft says it will publicly track its progress toward its goals. That's a "key element of any program like this that seeks to make significant emissions reductions," says Nancy Meyer, the vice president for business engagement at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "You have to show how those activities and initiatives are resulting in real reductions."

She also says it's critical for companies to advocate for changes in public policy. Meanwhile, in the absence of federal action on climate, pledges like Microsoft's are significant, Meyer says.

"It leads the way for other businesses to start making their own really ambitious goals like this," she says.

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