Apr 29, 2021 - 12:30pm

Carbon Negative, Water Positive, Zero Waste: Inside Microsoft’s New 10-Year Plan


Associate Manager, Communications and Strategy

Climate change presents both challenges and opportunities for businesses—and recently many have stepped up in taking a leadership role in finding and implementing real, practical solutions.  

In early 2020, Microsoft launched a broad environmental sustainability initiative focused on carbon, water, ecosystems, and waste. Executives announced a bold commitment to be carbon negative by 2030, and, to make up for the past, remove the carbon equal to its historic emissions by 2050.  

“It won’t be easy to achieve these commitments,” writes Microsoft Chief Environmental Officer Lucas Joppa. “It will take the entire decade and it won’t happen if we ‘set it and forget it.’ It will be the result of a decade of purposeful action to enact operational and systemic changes.” 

One year later in January 2021, Microsoft released its first-ever sustainability report detailing the company's progress toward its goals. Additionally, to increase transparency and accountability around sustainability efforts, Microsoft announced this year that progress toward sustainability goals will play a factor in determining executive pay.  

Read more from the Business is... series for Other ways the business community is stepping up in times of need.

For Microsoft, a global technology company with more than 168,000 employees worldwide, the move toward sustainable operations has taken place across almost every line of business operation.  

“We believe that by focusing on all the ways we can drive change, we can make an outsized impact on climate change. We, and other organizations who are serious about an environmentally sustainable future, need to pull all levers of influence we have,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith.  

The strategy is focused on minimizing the impact of Microsoft’s operations on four areas—carbon, water, waste, and ecosystems—while also maximizing the positive impacts that can result from use of Microsoft technology, such as tools that help businesses track water consumption or carbon emissions. Then, by sharing this technology with customers and partners, Microsoft can drive positive impact across the globe.  

Becoming carbon negative 

Microsoft committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030 – meaning that by that date the company will remove from the environment more carbon than it emits. By 2050, Microsoft says it will remove all the carbon the company has emitted directly or through electricity use since Microsoft was founded in 1975. 

In the first year of their journey, Microsoft reduced carbon emissions by 6%, from 11.6 million metric tons to 10.9 million metric tons. If that pace continues for the next 10 years, Microsoft will reach—or exceed—their goal to eliminate emissions.  

“There is a rapidly growing focus not only on reducing carbon emissions, but on addressing environmental equity and the need for a just transition to a net zero carbon future,” Smith said. 

In addition to curbing their own emissions, Microsoft has also worked to remove carbon from the environment. In January 2021, Microsoft announced it purchased the removal of 1.3 million metric tons of carbon from 15 suppliers across 26 projects around the world. According to Microsoft, this may be the largest annual carbon removal purchase any company has ever made.  

Several innovative initiatives are in the works to help Microsoft achieve its goal including scaling up consumption of zero carbon energy in Microsoft campuses and datacenters, electrifying the company's vehicle fleet of over 1,800 vehicles by 2030, improving supplier emissions reporting, and improving energy efficiency in devices and software.  

For example, Xbox recently added Regulatory Standby Plus (RS+) as a new power mode, which can reduce power from 15 watts to less than 2 watts while the device is in standby mode. The Windows Software Sustainability Initiative, launched in May 2020, will reduce the carbon footprint of Windows software and establish best practices for  energy-efficient Windows app development. 

Reaching water positive 

Microsoft also aims to be net water positive for its direct operations by 2030—meaning it will replenish more water than it uses. Using data analytics, Microsoft is tracking and finding innovative solutions to dramatically reduce water used at its datacenters, and Microsoft’s new Silicon Valley campus is on track to become the company’s first net-zero water building.  

The campus features an on-site rainwater collection system and waste treatment plant to ensure 100% of non-potable water comes from onsite recycled sources. The integrated water management system will manage and reuse rainwater and wastewater.  

In addition to using less water in its operations, Microsoft’s replenishment strategy includes investments in projects such as wetland restoration and the removal of impervious surfaces like asphalt, which will help replenish water back into the basins that need it most.  

Microsoft technology is also helping other companies to make smart decisions about water. For example, Ecolab, in partnership with Microsoft and S&P Trucost, offers two tools to help companies manage their risk: The Water Risk Monetizer provides actionable information to help understand water-related risks in financial terms, and the Smart Water Navigator helps companies reduce their water usage at a facility level.  

Impactful work on water is also taking place through community engagement programs that focus on alleviating any competition for water and improving local water quality and accessibility. In Quincy, Washington, Microsoft installed a water reuse system to address a lack of water supply.  

Making zero waste 

For its zero waste goal Microsoft will reduce nearly as much waste as it generates by reusing, repurposing, or recycling its electronics, construction and demolition, solid, compost, and hazardous wastes. 

By 2030, the goal is to divert at least 90% of the solid waste headed to landfills from Microsoft campuses and datacenters, manufacture 100% recyclable Surface devices, use 100% recyclable packaging, and achieve, at a minimum, 75% diversion of construction and demolition waste for all projects.  

“Waste is almost purely synonymous with opportunity,” Joppa said. 

Microsoft is hoping to unlock the benefits of the circular economy approach—whereby keeping materials in use, a business can achieve societal, environmental, and economic benefits. For example, Microsoft partnered with KPMG to measure the circularity of Surface devices and their packaging to find areas for improvement. A top recommendation included increasing the amount of aluminum in device enclosures and resins. 

One initiative aimed at improving the Microsoft's own waste reduction is building new, first-of-their-kind Circular Centers that will be built on every new datacenter campus to reuse and repurpose servers and network hardware.   

Plus, to reduce waste from all the shipping packaging that comes through the datacenters, Microsoft launched new responsible packaging goals for 2025 including: All packaging having a minimum of 50% recycled content; 100% of all packaging must be reusable, recyclable, or compostable; eliminating single-use plastics; and package weight being reduced by at least 10%.  

Protecting Earth’s ecosystems 

Microsoft committed to permanently protecting and restoring more land than it uses company-wide by 2025—and take responsibility for the impact of Microsoft operations on ecosystems.  

Work is already underway at Microsoft’s new Silicon Valley campus. To help restore a nearby creek, Microsoft planted nearly 600 trees, installed a three-acre green roof, and created a landscape that mimics the pre-development biodiversity. Microsoft has also partnered with The Nature Conservancy globally and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in the United States to continue to protect and restore land. 

But one fundamental problem that Microsoft is tackling is the decline of—and lack of knowledge and understanding around–the ecosystems we depend on for air, water, food, medicine, energy, and building materials.  

There is little scientific data on why species in certain ecosystems thrive or decline, but when a species dies off it can be catastrophic to a valuable ecosystem. Fortunately, Microsoft believes there is potential for a technology to revolutionize environmental assessment practices and bring a common understanding of ecosystem health. 

“Only when we have a massive amount of planetary data and compute can we begin to answer the complex question—how do we manage the Earth’s natural resources to ensure a climate-stable future,” Joppa said. 

Enter the Planetary Computer: Microsoft is building a new Planetary Computer to aggregate environmental data from around the world and provide access to critical datasets, AI, and digital technology. New data will be added continuously, allowing tools to be built that make it easier for scientists to find answers to big questions about the environment and plan solutions. 

Ten petabytes of environmental science data have been added so far including high-resolution satellite imagery and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on weather and climate.  

Acting on impactful solutions 

Dozens more projects and investments are taking place across Microsoft to help the company achieve its ambitious sustainability goals. Here are few unique examples: 

  • Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington will include one of the largest “geoexchange” fields in the United States to harness the earth’s thermal energy to control the heating and cooling of the buildings.  
  • Microsoft created a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund to accelerate the global development of carbon reduction and removal technologies, and climate solutions. 
  • Microsoft’s AI for Earth program increases access to cloud and AI technology for the world’s leading ecologists and conservation technologists to spur environmental innovations.  
  • Using AI and advanced analytics, the Microsoft Sustainability Calculator shows customers reduction trends in their cloud usage over time, providing the ability to forecast cloud emissions and simplify carbon reporting. 
  • Chase and Microsoft are jointly building a digital, traceable waste treatment system—one component includes Chase adding garbage collection sensors that capture the weight and composition of bin contents. 

To learn more about Microsoft’s 2020 sustainability report and goals, visit them here

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About the Author

About the Author

Lindsay Cates
Associate Manager, Communications and Strategy
Lindsay is a native of the Philadelphia suburbs and graduated from Washington and Lee University. She previously worked as a writer and editor at U.S. News and World Report.