Microsoft turns to British farms in efforts to become carbon-negative

Image: UNDO

Back in 2020, Microsoft announced a new commitment to become carbon-negative by 2030 and to remove the equivalent of all its historical greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The tech giant is investing in both nature-based solutions and man-made carbon removal technologies to meet this goal and, on the latter, has signed a ten-year deal with direct air capture (DAC) firm Climeworks.

Microsoft this week confirmed that it will purchase the first carbon removals from UNDO, a start-up in the field of enhanced rock weathering (ERW) for carbon capture. UNDO claims that ERW is faster and cheaper than DAC and, therefore, easier to scale.

UNDO’s carbon removal technology involves spreading finely crushed basalt rock across agricultural land. The basalt, taken as a by-product from the mining sector, accelerates the natural geological process of weathering. Bicarbonate ions are formed, locking up carbon. These can be stored under the ocean.

Using basalt can also reduce the level of greenhouse gases produced by a farm. As basalt breaks down, it releases nutrients, thus reducing the need for man-made fertisilsers.

Microsoft will purchase carbon credits for carbon captured through an UNDO project in the UK, supplied with basalt from Breedon’s Cragmill Quarry in Belford, north of Newcastle. UNDO believes the project will enable the removal of 5,000 tonnes of CO2 over a 20-year period.

“ERW offers a great deal of potential, and we are excited by the prospect of having this nature-enabled approach as an additional pillar of our permanent carbon removal portfolio,” said Microsoft’s engineered carbon removal lead Rafael Broze. “We are following developments in this field closely and look forward to working with the UNDO team as it continues its pioneering measurement, reporting and verification trials.”

UNDO is notably striving to be crowned one of the winners of the 2023 Earthshot Prize and receive a £1m grant funding package from the Duke and Duchess of Wales. Finalists for this year will be announced in the coming months ahead of an awards ceremony this winter.

Reduction first

Critics of carbon removal technologies often point to the fact that they are in their relative commercial infancy and, as such, should not be used by businesses as a substitute for delivering steep reductions in emissions in the first instance.

Climeworks has this week made a call to action – for corporates, policymakers and others – for a clearer definition of the distinct role of carbon removal. The call states that removals have an “important role” to play in addressing the climate crisis, but a “different role” than emissions reductions – and should not be used as a substitute for decarbonisation. It states that removals should only be used for hard-to-abate emissions and, in the longer-term, to achieve net-negative emissions.

“Emission reductions and CDR should be clearly distinguished from each other in climate pathways, target setting as well as in industry standards,” Climeworks said in a statement. This is noteworthy as net-zero transition plans for businesses begin to become more commonplace.

Climeworks is also calling for a “clear distinction” between carbon removal and reduction marketplaces and certificates.

Microsoft and Stripe have stated their support for Climeworks’ advocacy in this space.

Microsoft’s director of sustainability policy for Europe, Adina Braha-Honciuc, said: “Clearly distinguishing removal from avoidance credits will be critical for our collective remediation of historic emissions… Only removal credits should count towards remediating historical emissions. With clear crediting for removals, companies can continue to focus on driving deep emissions reductions and separately purchase carbon removals to cover emissions from hard-to-abate sectors and historical emissions.”

Comments (1)

  1. eva cahill says:

    Good example of using waste as a resource. Wondering where this basalt is spread and what customised on farm suitability testing is carried out, to close the circle and what independent traceability assurance comes with the whole process from production to field?

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie