Microsoft has set a number of lofty climate and environmental goals. Forget net zero: It wants to be carbon negative by 2030. Ditto for water.
How it meets those and other targets, let alone how it uses its clout to reshape the tech industry’s approach to climate, rests on a number of people’s shoulders. But there’s perhaps no one person more responsible for setting Microsoft’s path and figuring out how to get there than Lucas Joppa.
He’s the company’s first chief environmental officer, a role that requires understanding the state of climate science and the ins and outs of a sprawling tech empire that includes data centers, consumer tech, apps and more. Joppa is uniquely positioned for it, having made the move from academia to the industry. He’s a relatively rare sustainability head with a doctorate in the field (in his case, ecology), but he’s worked his way up at Microsoft over the past 13 years.
He explained why he decided to leave academia and how his background has helped him set a climate agenda for the tech giant.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I've always been fascinated with nature. More importantly, though, I grew up in northern Wisconsin. It was a natural-resource-predicated economy; any time you care about environmental issues, you're surrounded by environmental issues. I was fascinated by the interactions between the two.
Climate is the ultimate foundation upon which our socioeconomic systems are built. You know the Mark Twain quote: “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” With climate change, that expectation is going away. You can’t build enduring infrastructure, you can’t build enduring socioeconomic systems. That's where I got interested in all this: Someone's got to figure this out.
What became clear to me in my academic work was that we do know a lot about the natural world. We study forest plots, and then we try to extrapolate things from them. We study one trait of species, and we try to understand how ecosystems work, etc. I was really struck by all these problems of scale in my ecological training. It became clear that I was never going to answer the questions that I had without taking advantage of computing. It's hard to be a scientist these days without being a computational scientist.
You become kind of fascinated with these exponential growth curves in environmental degradation. And you look around and you're like, “The only thing where you consistently see curves like this is technological innovation.” If you're looking for a tool that scales with the problem, technology is the one that immediately jumps out.
Climate change is probably the grandest systems kind of crisis that the world's ever seen. My training helps me not become overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue. I understand the technological requirements, but I also understand the climate models and the socioeconomic models that the IPCC runs. If I trust those trajectories, and I trust the underlying model assumptions, then we've got to start investing in the innovation that will solve our problems.
What really formed the foundation of our early work, is if we do this — ”this” being achieving our carbon negative commitments — and we do it in a way that doesn't make it easier for everybody else, we didn't really do anything at all, right? The atmosphere does not care if Microsoft gets to net zero on its 15 million metric tons. It has a 42 gigaton problem.
That's informed basically everything that we do. It's informed our procurement strategy. It's informed our investment strategy. We're the largest purchaser of carbon removal in the history of the world, we're one of the largest investors in carbon reduction and removal technologies and projects and companies in the world. But that doesn't mean that the world doesn't need to reduce and avoid emissions at the same time.
The reality is that the climate crisis is going to be solved by contributions from people in academia, sure, but principally by contributions from people who are the source of the problem in the first place. That's where the action is.