Salesforce's CIO explains the company’s climate ambitions

The company claims to have achieved net zero already. Now, it plans to radically reduce its absolute emissions over the next decade.

Salesforce CIO Suzanne DiBianca holding a mic and gesturing on stage against a blurred background.

"For me, the litmus test of a net zero commitment is whether a company has an absolute emissions reduction target. And we do."

Photo: Salesforce

We talk a lot about problematic net zero pledges: those lacking in interim targets, or Scope 3 commitments or executive accountability. But there are a few companies that get it a little (or a lot) more right than others. Salesforce has one of the better ones.

The company has prioritized immediacy in its approach to net zero, claiming to have reached the goal across its value chain last September. It did that, in part, by relying on carbon offsets, and it has a plan to go much further in the coming years. Salesforce has said it will reduce its absolute emissions — that is, actually cutting greenhouse gases rather than offsetting them — 50% by 2030, and near-zero emissions by 2040. It’s also using its data tool chops to develop emissions tracking software — the Net Zero Cloud — that helps its customers monitor their own climate progress. With the software, gone are the days of tracking every gigawatt-hour of electricity used and ton of carbon dioxide on a bloated spreadsheet.

On Tuesday I participated in the Salesforce Net Zero summit, where tech executives explained their net zero plans. While there, I sat down with Suzanne DiBianca, the company’s chief impact officer, to talk about Salesforce’s climate ambitions. Below is our chat, edited for brevity and clarity.

In broad strokes, can you walk me through Salesforce’s net zero strategy and how you reached net zero across your value chain last year?

First, we had to start with operational excellence. We had to have a clear strategy for how to get to renewables. So I focused the first two years on operations, and then we started to say, “How do we accelerate?” Because all of these 2040 and 2050 commitments are too late, and we have to go faster. I feel really passionate about acceleration for us, and for all industries.

So we set up a supplier contract. With procurement, we went up to all of our suppliers and said you have to set a science-based target within three years. These were largely data centers, since we don’t own our own data centers like Google or Amazon do.

And what are the challenges involved in getting there with your suppliers?

First of all, there’s the question of measuring emissions. It’s easier to measure your own real estate, your own business travel, your own energy bills. That’s step one. And we have a tool that we use with suppliers where you can aggregate the data and repurpose it for other customers. For example, if an Amazon data center consumes X megawatts, we now have a pretty good formula for how to convert that into our own Scope 3 emissions. And the good news is that many of them now have science-based targets as well, largely 2030 or 2040 targets. So there’s this circular dynamic where we’re all putting pressure on each other to bring emissions down.

And so far, we’ve had very little pushback. We have had a lot of questions — like “How do I do this?” — which is actually good timing given that we launched the Net Zero Cloud tool that can really help them. What we did get was a lot of thank yous from chief sustainability officers who have been trying to get this done for a while.

Can you tell me some more about the Net Zero Cloud? How does it operate and what are some of its applications?

Well, we built it because we needed it. Typical Salesforce. This is a data problem, where most companies are managing their emissions on spreadsheets, which are 2,000 rows long. My team built something in Salesforce, in a fairly ad hoc way. We had a small product, and we put it up on our marketplace for apps for free. And we had a couple of customers on it, and then everything changed. The pandemic hit, the IPCC report was released, the skies turned orange, the youth movement became really critical.

The moment was here, so we took it and made the Net Zero Cloud a part of our core products. We just turned on the spigot. And now we’ve done supplier engagement, we’ve done what-if analyses, we’ve done water, we’re doing waste next. We're super excited about a carbon marketplace to connect with the effort, where you can essentially trade your carbon within the marketplace and the product. That'll be out this fall.

Of course, there’s only so much you can do purely through switching to renewables. How much do you rely on offsets and how do they function as a part of the company’s strategy?

We’re huge fans of nature-based solutions, especially via conservation. It's a lot more than carbon sequestration; there are so many biodiversity benefits and economic development benefits. I'm so lucky that I have this team that is really focused on the quality of offsets and additionality. You hear these tragic stories of investing in tree farms, and then they're cut down over a certain number of years, and the carbon is stored in wood. Or they’re burned down in Northern California, or there’s a flood. So you have to calculate for some loss.

As far as how offsets [fit] into our strategy: For me, the litmus test of a net zero commitment is whether a company has an absolute emissions reduction target. And we do. So the offsetting is actually reduced over time, because there will be less to offset. Salesforce’s goal is to have a 50% reduction in total emissions by 2030, which is aggressive, and especially aggressive for a growth company, because we make acquisitions. It really requires us to think differently about how we do our work and who we work with.


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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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