Microsoft building
Photo: Microsoft

Here are the climate policies Microsoft will advocate for

Protocol Climate

Hey, hello, good day and all that. Your Protocol Climate team is happy to have you here. We have sufficiently recovered from Climate Week and are excited to bring you this week’s climate news. (Something, something, live every week like it’s Climate Week.) Today, we’re talking about Microsoft’s new climate policy position, the academic exodus to climate startups, and refrigerants to power the next wave of cooling tech.

Microsoft sets its policy goals

Big Tech sure loves its big climate goals, but they’re pretty useless in a vacuum without policies that support a faster transition to decarbonizing the economy. While some companies have come out backing specific legislation and set broad policy principles, few have laid out a plan as detailed as the ones Microsoft dropped recently.

The company published two briefs — one on carbon and one on electricity — that include specific types of policies it will support in the U.S. and around the world. The briefs will offer a measuring stick to determine if Microsoft is living up to its ideals.

Microsoft already has one of tech’s most aggressive climate plans. The company wants to go carbon negative by 2030. Yet its carbon emissions rose last year by 21.5%, owing to the uptick in data center construction and customers using its products — and the fact that the grid is largely fossil-fueled. The policies it says it will advocate for could help turn the tide, though.

The company would like to see a cleaner grid. Which, hey, join the club. But with vast lobbying resources and a considerably bigger public profile than some guy who runs a newsletter, Microsoft could make a greater difference.

  • The company noted that while it’s doing its own work to procure more renewable energy, “we also see an urgent need to update policies to enable access to clean energy for all electricity users.”
  • It said it would back policies that expand access to clean energy markets and cut costs for end users.
  • In addition, it would back policies to modernize grid infrastructure and speed up permitting. (A company spokesperson said in an email that it was still “reviewing” the permitting reform bill currently under consideration in Congress.)

Carbon removal is also front and center. Big Tech’s favorite climate solution gets a whole section in the carbon policy brief. Citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Microsoft laid out the need to pull 10 billion tons of carbon from the sky per year.

  • Going carbon negative hinges on carbon dioxide removal.
  • But those services remain expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per ton, and companies offering them are only capable of removing thousands of tons per year. For reference, Microsoft’s Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions added up to nearly 14 million tons in 2021.
  • Policies could cut the cost of carbon removal and spur more innovation. The company specifically name-dropped the 45Q tax credit in the U.S. that was recently bolstered by the Inflation Reduction and Chips Acts.
  • It also said it will back policies that set standards and support removal services that store carbon for at least 100 years. Which is good because we need said carbon to not go anywhere.

There are a few carveouts that could limit Microsoft’s effectiveness. The company will advocate for sound climate policies, yes. But there are a few ways it may end up working against itself.

  • Microsoft said in an email it’s “unlikely we’ll agree with any official on every issue” in response to a question about if it would continue to donate to political candidates who may stand in the way of those policies.
  • And it said it welcomes the “opportunity to engage with numerous organizations that are addressing this and many other issues simultaneously.” Among them are the Business Roundtable, which has a complicated relationship with climate policy.

But while other tech companies have stated climate policy stances, Microsoft’s are now among the most detailed. “It is great to see clearly articulated support for a wider range of climate policies, and a much clearer sense of urgency,” Bill Weihl, the founder and 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.”

— Brian Kahn

Goodbye, ivory tower. Hello, startup.

Earlier this month, carbon removal startup Watershed made headlines when it nabbed University of California, Irvine professor Steve Davis as its new head of climate science.

Davis is hardly a solo defector, though. In fact, a growing number of academics and scientists are leaving for the climate tech sector. I spoke to a few of them this week about why.

In short, the timing is right. Money is flowing toward climate tech and a number of startups are ready to start scaling their solutions. “This wasn’t really an opportunity before now, and all of a sudden companies actually want climate science in-house,” Davis told me. “And I think it’s really kind of a neat turn of events for me and my students and postdocs.”

  • Others echo his sentiments. “Nobody cared about this five years ago,” said Laura Lammers, who left her post as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley to found carbon mineralization startup Travertine Technologies. In contrast, both the demand and supply are available now, Lammers said.
  • There’s also a matter of urgency when it comes to solving the climate crisis. “In academia, you have the luxury of asking a question for a decade. We don’t have the luxury to sit around for a decade. We need to be implementing solutions,” she said.
  • Scientists are also looking to make more impact. Even if you publish in Nature, there’s always a question of, “Did anyone even read it?” Dan Sanchez, a University of California, Berkeley professor who’s on leave to work as Carbon Direct’s chief scientist of biomass removal and storage, told me.

Other academics considering the move need to keep a few things in mind. There’s a cultural difference — and tension — between the tenure track and startup world.

  • Fundamentally, the mantra of “move fast and break things” can at times be at odds with the meticulous nature of the scientific method. That’s particularly the case for nascent fields like carbon removal, which has come under some scrutiny for its potential unintended consequences.
  • At the same time, carbon removal has experienced explosive growth and record VC investment. So it’s necessary to bring in scientific expertise to “scale the industry responsibly,” Sanchez said.
  • If you’re a scientist considering the switch, Sanchez said to make sure that the company’s culture “respects conservatism” scientifically, as well as fiscally. If the vetting process is thorough, “going to the private sector doesn’t mean you’re inevitably going to compromise your ideals,” he said.

Academics answering the call say we’re past the point of talking about solutions. We need to be implementing them with rigor.

“I think everybody is feeling an acute sense of urgency tackling the climate crisis,” Lammers told me. “We feel the fire, breathe the smoke, feel the heat.”

Read the full story.

— Michelle Ma


Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

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UN General Assembly and the climate tech forecast

Join Protocol Climate editor Brian Kahn and a panel of climate leaders and tech executives to recap the biggest developments at UNGA 2022 and preview the trends and events that will shape the future of climate tech and the planet. RSVP here.

One big question: What are the refrigerants of the future?

In a rare display of bipartisan climate action, the Senate ratified the Kigali Amendment last week. That makes the U.S. the 138th country to sign on to phasing down the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are coolants used in refrigeration and air conditioning. They’re also super-polluting greenhouse gases: We’re talking about a global warming potential, or GWP, 1,000 times that of carbon dioxide.

There are a number of non-planet-frying alternatives, though each has its pluses and minuses. So, what does the future of cooling look like? We posed the question to a panel of experts. Here’s what they told us (edited for brevity and clarity). For more, read the full story.

Vincent Romanin, CEO of Gradient

Previously, hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) were the big hope for a refrigerant with low GWP to replace chlorofluorocarbons [or CFCs, which were initially phased out by the Montreal Protocol because they depleted the ozone layer]. But that’s not the case anymore; a recent German Environment Agency report shows that HFOs break down into trifluoroacetic acid in the atmosphere, then trickle down and end up in water. This acid is toxic to marine life, can be hazardous to human health, and can’t be removed using traditional desalination techniques.

At Gradient we believe that natural refrigerants like propane (specifically propane R290) would be a very efficient and environmentally friendly solution.

Iain Campbell, senior fellow at RMI’s Carbon-Free Buildings division

The attributes of different refrigerants — such as GWP, flammability, toxicity, operating pressure, and energy efficiency — have to be matched to the profile of the application. For example, refrigerant leaks are more prominent in the automotive AC sector, so low GWP and low toxicity are the most critical attributes to consider. The bottom line is that today there is a refrigerant with a GWP below 150 for every application and we do not need to wait for the discovery of an "ultimate" coolant in order to make the transition to dramatically more sustainable coolants.

Avipsa Mahapatra, climate campaign lead at the Environmental Investigation Agency

While the fluorochemical industry may have clear financial benefit in making incremental changes in the GWP of next-gen coolants, this planned obsolescence has come at a great cost to our planet and we can no longer afford it. The coolant of the future needs to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis, rather than exacerbate it like the majority of synthetic options do today.

Policymakers and tech leaders need to not just reduce environmental and climate destruction by adopting natural refrigerants and more efficient products, but also by fundamentally lowering our cooling and heating needs in the first place and then fulfilling the remaining needs with coolants that have the lowest cradle-to-grave impact on the planet.

Lisa Martine Jenkins

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If we want our nation’s rich history of innovation to continue, experts say, we must create an IP protection ecosystem that helps ensure that tech innovation will thrive.

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