The tech industry has no shortage of climate goals, but they’ll be very hard to achieve without the help of sound public policy.
Microsoft published two new briefs on Sept. 22 explaining what policies it will advocate for in the realm of reducing carbon and cleaning up the grid. With policymakers in the U.S. and around the world beginning to weigh more stringent climate policies (or in the U.S.’s case, any serious climate policies at all), the briefs will offer a measuring stick for whether Microsoft is living up to its ideals.
The company has put together one of the most aggressive climate plans in Big Tech, including reaching carbon negativity by 2030. Yet its carbon emissions rose last year by 21.5%, owing to an uptick in data center construction and in customers using its products. Because the grid remains largely fossil-fueled, the company’s emissions will likely be stuck on the wrong trajectory unless more steps are taken to transition to cleaner sources of energy. And the only way that’s happening is through policy interventions.
There are areas in the new briefs that are both surprising to see a tech company pushing for and ones that fit with established patterns.
On the predictable side of the ledger, Microsoft said it supports “public policy changes that will result in a significantly expanded and increasingly decarbonized grid.” For a company that sells electronics and runs power-sucking data centers, public incentives to clean up the grid are a no-brainer.
Microsoft also espoused its support for policies that foster nascent carbon removal technology, specifically name-dropping the 45Q tax credit, which was recently bolstered by the Inflation Reduction and Chips Acts. The company said it will back policies that set standards and support removal services that store carbon for at least 100 years.
Going carbon-negative hinges on carbon dioxide removal. But those developing services remain expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per ton of removed carbon, and companies offering them are only capable of removing thousands of tons per year. For reference, Microsoft’s Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions alone added up to nearly 14 million tons in 2021.
“We know the opposition will show up in force; we need Microsoft and others to lobby like they mean it.”
The tandem policies of cleaning up the grid and finding ways to bring down the cost of CDR, though, offer a pathway for Microsoft to meet its goals. A company spokesperson told Protocol in an email that Microsoft is “very open to harmonizing positions, building coalitions, and accelerating policy action to address carbon and electricity policies consistent with our policy briefs.” The spokesperson also said Microsoft could find common cause with a number of other major tech companies that have also made plans to go 100% clean energy and put up advanced market commitments for CDR services.
More surprisingly, the tech giant also said it would advocate for policies that enable climate finance aid to flow from the Global North to the Global South to, among other things, “advance immediately beyond traditional carbon-intensive infrastructure.”
Getting the Global South to leapfrog fossil fuels is imperative in the coming decades as non-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries are projected to see carbon emissions rise even while OECD countries see them fall. Yet while other tech companies — notably Salesforce — have committed to nature-based solutions in the Global South, Microsoft’s commitment to advocate for climate finance policies that speed up grid decarbonization is a unique step. (Having reliable clean power would, of course, open up new markets for Microsoft’s products and services.)
“It is great to see clearly articulated support for a wider range of climate policies, and a much clearer sense of urgency,” Bill Weihl, founder and executive director of ClimateVoice, told Protocol. “I hope many other companies will follow their lead and speak up loudly in favor of a broad suite of policies in every city, state, and country where they operate.”
Now the question is how Microsoft will advocate for these policies. Company president Brad Smith showed up at the White House in January to “offer a full-throated endorsement of the climate provisions” in the Build Back Better Act, though that was after Sen. Joe Manchin had already effectively torpedoed it. When the Inflation Reduction Act popped up as a slimmed-down version of Build Back Better, though, Microsoft did not immediately have comment on it.
Microsoft is also a member of the Business Roundtable, an industry lobbying group that said there was “merit” to the climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act while opposing the tax increases that would’ve paid for them. A company spokesperson said it welcomed the “opportunity to engage with numerous organizations that are addressing this and many other issues simultaneously, including the Business Roundtable, which we respect and appreciate.”
There are signs that tech companies are pushing the trade group to be more progressive around climate, though Weihl said ClimateVoice “would hope to see Microsoft explicitly distance itself from trade associations on climate policy, and invest more heavily in advocacy to counter the opposition and obstruction from those groups.”
“We know the opposition will show up in force; we need Microsoft and others to lobby like they mean it,” Weihl said.
While nearly 75% of Microsoft’s political donations in this cycle have gone to Democratic candidates and organizations, the company has also committed a fair chunk of change to Republican candidates who actively obstruct the policies Microsoft says it supports. Its corporate PAC has also donated slightly more to Republicans in this election cycle.
Sen. Mike Lee is the top Republican recipient of Microsoft’s money this cycle, receiving nearly $45,000 from the company and its employees while the company gave another $5,000 to his PAC, according to data compiled by Open Secrets. He is also a vehement climate denier and has given floor speeches mocking climate change by invoking “Sharknado.” (Yes, really.) Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has received $22,400 from Microsoft, including $5,000 from the company PAC; the company also gave McMorris Rodgers' PAC $10,000. While she accepts the science of climate change, she has a lifetime score of 5% with the League of Conservation Voters, reflecting a weak voting record when it actually comes to addressing the crisis.
“Given the breadth of our policy agenda, it’s unlikely we’ll agree with any official on every issue, but we’ve learned that engagement — even when individuals hold different positions — is an essential part of achieving progress,” a Microsoft spokesperson said.