The ecologist helping set Microsoft’s climate plan
Protocol Climate readers, good day. Happy day-after-July-4. Today, we’re chatting with Microsoft’s chief environmental officer Lucas Joppa about his unique background as an ecologist in the C-suite. We’ll also look at a wave energy breakthrough in the making and a rare earth disinformation campaign.
The vision behind Microsoft's climate goals
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. No pressure!
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 navigate it than Lucas Joppa, the company’s chief environmental officer. Protocol chatted with him about how his background as an ecologist focused on scale has helped inform his work at the tech giant.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Before getting to your work at Microsoft, I'm really curious: What was it that drew you to conservation?
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.
It's interesting to hear you describe growing up in a natural resource economy and doing conservation work. Pivoting to work in the tech industry, I think a lot of folks would think, “Oh, that's the opposite of natural resource and conservation work.” Can you tell me a little bit about that pivot?
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. I was really struck by all these problems of scale in my ecological training. Software and modern computational technology entered my life because it became clear I was never going to answer the questions that I had without taking advantage of computing.
As a scientist who gets the computational side, how does that inform your approach to setting climate policy at a major tech company?
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.
How do you view your role at Microsoft, obviously setting the course of things there, but also how that links up to the bigger picture, since one company going net zero does not a 1.5-degree-Celsius world make?
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 appreciate that we have a lot of resources and that the world expects us and needs us to put those resources into play to help solve the net zero challenge that we have. But we are very aware and sensitive to the fact that we have to do that in a way that makes it easier for others to follow.
Stay tuned for more from Lucas on Protocol this Wednesday.— Brian Kahn (email | twitter)
Catch a wave
Yes, The Beach Boys was my very first concert, thank you for asking. But waves aren’t just inspiration for surf rock: They’re a potentially major — if complex — source of renewable energy. While we’re still in the early stages of harnessing the ocean’s power for electricity, the technology to do so is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.
New Jersey is poised to be an ocean energy leader. A bill introduced in the assembly last week by Democratic Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak would make the state the first in the U.S. to throw government support behind ocean energy.
- It would direct the state’s utility board to both initiate a study of generating power from waves and tides and simultaneously support ocean energy pilot projects.
- The bill calls for the board to produce a plan for deploying these technologies and potentially offering financial incentives as well.
- The state has set a 2050 net zero goal, and Karabinchak said that wave and tidal energy could help make progress toward that North Star.
The energy potential of the ocean could be big — assuming we can harness it. The first patent for a wave energy-fueled motor was submitted in France in 1799(!), and technology analogous to modern converters emerged in the 1940s. But growing the industry in the interim has proven difficult, given that the ocean presents challenges and surprises that have made it hard to tap.
- According to the Energy Information Administration, waves off the U.S. coast are churning out 2.64 trillion kilowatt hours of untapped energy — equivalent to 66% of the country’s total electricity generation in 2020.
- But harnessing that power means placing converters in harsh and unpredictable environments, according to Muhammad Hajj, chair of the Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering Department at the Stevens Institute of Technology.
- Technological challenges have meant that wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down costs.
One company has found success with wave energy close to shore. The Israel-based Eco Wave Power connects its technology to existing man-made structures — including piers, breakwaters and jetties — in order to keep overall construction costs low and avoid the practical pitfalls of the open ocean.
- It became difficult to fund and insure earlier, offshore projects, not to mention build the transmission lines to connect them to the grid.
- “Not only is it expensive to install offshore, but … you get waves with a height of 20 meters. And no man-made stationary equipment can really withstand the load of a 20-meter wave height,” the company’s founder and CEO Inna Braverman said.
- The company has two operational projects: one at the Port of Gibraltar and one in Israel. Several more are in the works, and its focus is primarily on the U.S. and European markets.
- “We really need to introduce new renewable energy sources in order to really be able to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Braverman said. “And I truly believe that wave energy can be the solution for that. New Jersey is just the start.”
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How to build an equitable and inclusive future: At the same time that the pandemic demonstrated all that is possible in an interconnected world, we saw in new and increasingly stark ways how certain communities continue to be marginalized and harmed by a persistent digital divide and how effectively that divide exacerbates our society’s other inequities.
Rare earth fight
The latest supply chain battleground? Social media.
An ongoing disinformation campaign known as Dragonbridge has begun targeting several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” The overall campaign, which was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant, has promoted China’s political interests.
One of the targets, Australian company Lynas Rare Earths Ltd, is planning to construct a processing site in Texas with the support of the Department of Defense, an effort that the campaign is trying to upend using social media posts raising questions about the company’s environmental record. The posts have even gone so far as to call for protests of the project. Dragonbridge has also targeted Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp., a Canadian outfit, and U.S.-based USA Rare Earth. The matter is now under review by the Department of Defense.
China controls a significant chunk of the rare earths market at the moment, a fact that gives the country enormous power as demand for batteries for energy storage and EVs — and, accordingly, their prices — skyrocket. As companies elsewhere try to establish a foothold, it seems hackers operating in the country’s interest are trying to cast doubt on those efforts, and leave the increasingly lucrative market in China’s hands.— Lisa Martine Jenkins
Move over, Tesla. The company is no longer the world’s biggest EV maker.
Crypto finally gets some guardrails, at least in Europe. A new law requires crypto companies to disclose how much energy they consume, and offers some protection to investors.
The other shoe dropped for a Finger Lakes crypto plant. New York environmental regulators denied a permit that the controversial plant would need to keep running.
Everything’s going great! That’s why the White House is studying how to dim the sun. No, seriously. Studying the risks is a way to lower the odds of diving into a huge disaster. (Still, we should probably put more energy into cutting emissions!)
How about making the solar “farm” a little more literal? Agrivoltaics developers are betting that solar power and farming can work side by side, with plants below the panels and animals grazing between them.
New tech makes the invisible visible. At least when we’re talking about the methane quietly leaking from natural gas infrastructure.
— Brian Kahn and Lisa Martine Jenkins
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How to build an equitable and inclusive future: There is so much more we need to do to make sure our future is more equitable and inclusive and maximizes America’s potential. It is not enough just to ensure everyone is connected. We also need to extend the full scope of digital opportunity to the people, the communities, and the institutions.
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