Microsoft pledges to be 'carbon negative' within ten years

Microsoft is making a series of compelling commitments to reduce and ultimately reverse the damage that its business is causing to the environment.

The company is already working to compensate for the carbon dioxide emissions it produces but has decided it needs to go further and move faster if it is to play its part in avoiding catastrophic climate change.

"We've spent a lot of time studying the science and the maths," Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, told ITV News.

"It's clear that [all companies] are going need to take new steps, we're going to have to push ourselves, we're going to have to emit less carbon, we're going to have to remove carbon from the environment. That is literally the only way to ensure that this planet remains a hospitable place for people".

To prevent dangerous levels of global warming, the world needs to be removing at least as much carbon from the atmosphere as we put into it by 2050.

Microsoft is pledging to go even further. It's ambition is to become "carbon negative" by 2030. And by 2050 Microsoft says it will have removed from the environment all of the carbon that the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975.

Technology companies aren't anywhere near as polluting as oil and gas companies or airlines but Microsoft's carbon footprint is still huge, principally because it and its customers use so much energy.

Microsoft calculates that it will generate 16 million metric tonnes of carbon this year.

Microsoft has measured the carbon it creates by powering its buildings and its datacentres, by the travel it staff undertake and by the production of its software and its devices.

The company has also estimated and taken responsibility for the carbon generated when its customers use electricity to opens an email on Hotmail, search for something on Bing or stream a video on one its laptops.

"Carbon negative" is a hugely ambitious target. Microsoft intends to hit it by reducing its emissions and by encouraging its suppliers and customers to do the same. The company has an internal carbon tax designed to change the behaviour of staff and it plans to only use electricity that has been generated from renewable sources by 2025.

Microsoft also intends to remove carbon from the atmosphere, initially by planting trees which naturally extract carbon, and progressively by the use of technology which filters carbon and stores it.

Microsoft admits that it is banking on technology that in some cases doesn't yet exist, but the company is creating a $1 billion investment fund to speed development along and rejects the idea that its commitments are unrealistic.

"We have spent months preparing for this announcement. This is a moonshot, there's no doubt about it. But we have a plan that we believe will get us to where we need to be by 2030," Smith insists.

"When John F Kennedy gave a speech in September of 1962 saying that the United States would go to the moon by the end of that decade American astronauts had spent less than 10 hours in space.

"This goal for us is much easier to achieve than that one. We start out from a much stronger foundation than the American space program had at that time. We are confident that if we put our energy behind this, if we pursue it with the kind of commitment that it requires we will achieve this goal".

  • Video report by ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills

Making this transition will be expensive. Smith concedes it is possible that Microsoft may end up being less profitable in future.

"It will cost us money but we may find we gain more customers, we'll see how the balance is struck over time," he said.

The targets will be binding. Smith confirmed that executive pay and bonuses will be linked to progress made.

"This is fundamentally important goal for our company. I should be paid less if we fall short," he told me.

Professor Lord Nicholas Stern is Chair of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics.

He was the author of the landmark review of the economics of climate change in 2006 which highlighted the need for prompt, decisive action to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

He describes Microsoft's announcement as "credible, welcome and important".

"Their internal carbon price of $15/tonne I think is a little on the low side, I would have had something like $30 or $40, which is what other firms use." Lord Stern told ITV News.

“But I think what is very interesting is not only that they want to go carbon negative by 2030 but they actually want to invest directly in methods of taking carbon out and they want to take out all of the historically produced emissions by 2050. A key part of their story will be the credibility of their investment."

Microsoft is a big polluter but it is far from being the biggest. The pledges it is making will put pressure on the likes of Google and Amazon to follow suit but the science tells us that we need companies across all sectors of the global economy to show similar ambition if we are to avoid disastrous levels of global warming.

Microsoft promises not only to tackle its carbon footprint but to use its voice to encourage others, including governments, to raise their game.

One of America's most successful companies believes the science of climate change and the need for urgent action.

America's President appears not to.