How Microsoft is ‘going beyond its four walls’ to solve global sustainability challenges
EXCLUSIVE: Microsoft is "obsessed" with using its responsibility as a global technology firm to empower others to address climate change and deliver a resilient future, its chief environment officer has said.
The tech giant has already made significant headway in its own operations; operating 100% carbon-neutral since 2012, purchasing more than 1GW of renewable energy, and pledging to slash its carbon footprint by 75% by 2030 in line with a 2C future.
Microsoft’s chief environment officer Lucas Joppa accepts that while this progress “is not enough”, it has laid the foundations for the US-based firm to help other organisations without the financial or technological capabilities to use a tech-first approach to “change the course of our planet.”
Joppa told edie: “Making sure the world achieves a 1.5C future goes well beyond Microsoft’s own internal commitments, which is one of the reasons why we started to proactively invest outside of our own four walls.
“We see that we have been committed to this space, self-regulating for quite a while, but we realise that no matter what, if we don’t use our technologies and convince partners all around the world to come with us and to reduce environmental impacts in the future then it isn’t a win for Microsoft to do this.”
AI for Earth
This unwavering belief has spurred Microsoft to launch a five-year $50m commitment to bring Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to entrepreneurs and start-ups around the world who are working to deliver innovative solutions for challenges such as biodiversity conservation, climate change, agriculture and water security.
Last month, Microsoft awarded 11 grants to winners of a $1.2m AI for Earth Innovation grant in partnership with the National Geographic Society. Among the grants was UK Polar scientist Joseph Cook, who aims to develop new tools that use machine learning and drone satellite technology to explore retreating glaciers and provide important information about the scale of climate change.
Joppa explained that the grants will support the creation and deployment of open-source trained models and algorithms that are available to other environmental researchers and innovators and thereby have the potential to provide exponential impact.
“We are big believers in open-source tools, driven by a concern that not enough people are using the advances that we have seen in machine learning to tackle sustainability issues,” he said. “We are worried when people aren’t taking a digital path to the future. When you look at sustainability, in many respects the digital transformation we seek in other sectors is just taking hold.
“The best way to go is proactively and invest in this sector in a way that enables everyone to take advantage of the solutions we are building. That goes beyond open-source, because if it is just a bunch of code that anyone can take advantage of, then that is only well and good if you have a company that is capable of using that technology.
He added: “The skills and expertise we have at a company like Microsoft has enabled us to build a data science and engineering team to work with, and educate, entrepreneurs. So, I think about open-source as a necessary but insufficient solution to help the sustainability community work with machine learning technologies going forward.”
Joppa insists that technology is not a “panacea” and warned against the potential for complacency to creep in among business leaders, stressing that “technology and AI is not going to solve the sustainability problem, people are going to solve the sustainability problem.”
“That is the story of every major problem that humans have gone through in history. We need to make sure that people aren’t just resting on their laurels, thinking that AI is going to solve everything, it is going to help us solve things. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and educate and skill ourselves in how to use these technologies to tackle the problems that face us.”
We Are Still In
Microsoft is a prime example of a US-based business taking a leading stance on climate action, despite the political U-turn issued by President Trump to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Along with more than 900 companies, Microsoft joined the We Are Still In declaration, led by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Joppa admitted that the current political atmosphere in Washington was not ideal for climate efforts, but stressed Microsoft would continue to use its public presence to change behaviours among politicians and the business community around sustainability issues.
“It is part of parcel of who we are and what we do,” Joppa said. “A lot of people want to talk about the current situation in the US. It is always nice when different sectors and institutions all head in the same way, and have the wind in your sails. Ultimately, when it comes to achieving international treaties such as the Paris Agreement, it comes down to single institutions and actors changing their behaviours on the ground and committing to move forward.
“We think it would be great if everybody agreed with us that we all need to be reducing our emissions and accept the internationally made agreement. But whether or not governments agree with us or not, we are focusing on what we need to do and help others who want to reach these levels of achievement to do so.”
edie Explains: Artificial Intelligence for sustainable business
edie recently published an Explains guide, sponsored by Ditto AI, which outlines everything businesses need to know to explore, understand and consider when investing in deploying AI to boost energy efficiency and drive sustainability.
The eight-page edie explains guide provides an end-to-end overview of the various AI solutions and their uses, helping sustainability and energy managers understand exactly how to make the most out of AI. You can read that guide for free, here.