Is it feasible for a global manufacturer and data center operator to consistently remove more carbon dioxide particles from Earth’s atmosphere than it emits?
That’s the challenge Microsoft pledged to tackle at a news conference from its global headquarters in Redmond last week. The company has set 2030 as the year it expects to be able to remove more greenhouse gases than its combined operations emit, making it “carbon-negative.”
“We need to continue to advance human prosperity,” declared Microsoft President Brad Smith. “We will need to continue to generate and use more energy. But we need to cut the cord with carbon.”
The company’s plan will involve a myriad projects pursued in parallel, including extending its existing internal carbon tax program to include more indirect energy expenditures, investing in technology projects that aim to literally suck carbon dioxide particles out of the air with fans, and incentivizing its own partners and suppliers to reduce their carbon emissions.
Since 2012, Microsoft has been saying that its Azure data centers have been carbon-neutral. In May 2018, the company stated that about half the energy from some 1.2GW of Azure’s energy sources are directly supplied by wind, solar, or hydroelectric generators. Last week, the company said it intends to complete the transition throughout the organization to 100 percent of its energy supplied directly through renewable sources — as opposed to through the use of Renewable Energy Credits, which has been the currency for the most so-called “green data centers.”
In explaining how Microsoft plans to calculate net emissions, Smith presented the scale used by the US Environmental Protection Agency to categorize direct and indirect sources of GHG emissions. On this scale, Scope 1 emissions are those a company would generate using its own processes (during manufacturing, for example, or by burning fossil fuel on its own premises). Scope 2 covers emissions caused by the consumption of electricity usually generated by second-party power companies.
Scope 3, however, incorporates any number of indirect emissions that occur as repercussions of energy consumption. The EPA lists employee travel, solid waste disposal, and electricity lost during transportation to the purchaser site as examples of Scope 3 emissions. As Smith indicated last week, Microsoft’s categorization goes somewhat further.
“It’s really the supply chain,” he remarked. “One of the big things is cement. When our new buildings are being built, and the concrete is being poured, it comes from cement. When cement is created, carbon is emitted. The same thing is true of steel; the same thing is true for the electrical components that go into Microsoft’s products. The same thing is true for the beef that we consume and the greenhouse gasses that are emitted to raise those cattle.”
He even included carbon emitted as a byproduct of customers using Microsoft’s hardware: “We love Xboxes. But we all know that an Xbox only works when it’s plugged in and it is using electricity. So, when our customers are running an Xbox and it is using electricity, when that electricity is generated by creating carbon emissions, that too is part of our Scope 3.”
Microsoft’s “carbon math,” Smith stated, accounts for emissions in all three EPA categories. Of the 16 million metric tons (mt) of carbon the company estimates it will emit in 2020, only about 4.1 million collectively belongs to Scopes 1 and 2 – the remainder falling under Scope 3.
As a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed to Data Center Knowledge, “Our calculations of what it will take us to reach carbon-negative are based on our emissions reductions across Scopes 1, 2, and 3, which includes our suppliers' emissions.”
This opens up a new and curious line of inquiry: Can Microsoft (or any company for that matter) accurately estimate how much GHG is not being emitted through the indirect use of its products and services? And should it be permitted to count these estimates in its favor as it sums the amounts of GHG it removes from the Earth’s atmosphere?
Tech that Sucks… A Lot
Microsoft made a pledge to begin actively removing carbon from the atmosphere and supporting technologies that help remove it.
“We have a variety of well-thought-out approaches to pursue this,” said Smith. One such approach is to expand the company’s tree planting efforts, although he did admit that “it only really is impactful if you plant trees that somebody else wasn’t already going to plant; if you plant trees that nobody is to cut down; if you plant trees with an eye to the use of data science to maximize the impact in removing carbon from the atmosphere.”
Another option on the agenda will be investment in carbon removal and other technologies totaling $1 billion over a four-year period.
Smith said one of these technologies will be Direct Air Capture. While he avoided mentioning any DAC projects in particular, one prominent example is by a Vancouver-based company called Carbon Engineering. Its system is literally a giant vacuum cleaner being held up to the air — an array of fans which capture air jets, expose the incoming air to an aqueous solution by means of what it calls an “air-liquid contactor,” and trap CO2 particles in that solution.
According to CE’s own projections, however, for each metric ton of CO2 the system captures, it will consume some 8.81 gigajoules (GJ) of natural gas, or, alternatively, a combination of 5.25 GJ plus 366kW of electricity. According to conversion figures from Natural Resources Canada, 8.81 GJ is the equivalent energy produced by burning about 60.5 gallons of gasoline. Other sources indicate that this natural gas expenditure would result in GHG emissions of about 494 kilograms of CO2 per 1 metric ton collected — almost half as much GHG particles by weight as the system would capture.
Theoretically, the system could collect its own emissions, or at least most of them, like a giant turbocharger. But they’re still emissions.
By Smith’s logic, those 494 kg would have to count as Scope 3 emissions. And if Microsoft extends its carbon tax from Scope 1 to Scopes 2 and 3, at its current rates, were it to use the CE DAC system, it would have to tax itself an additional $7.41 for each metric ton of CO2 removed in addition to the $15 for each metric ton originally emitted.
Even wind and solar power generation is not carbon neutral if you include the generation technology suppliers’ own carbon footprint. For example, companies in the wind space, including GE, have set the end of 2020 as their deadline for achieving carbon-neutral operations. Even then, however, GE says it intends to use some creative accounting to achieve that goal, including “balancing the remaining emissions with carbon offsets to achieve a net-zero footprint.”
Microsoft expects to have processes in place enabling its partners and suppliers to measure and report on their GHG emission levels by next July. If the company were to partner with a DAC firm, that partner would have to be treated as a supplier and would be subject to the same transparency and carbon taxing requirements as Microsoft applies to its own operations.
“The planet's preservation is an issue so big,” the company spokesperson told us, “that no single company, individual, or country can solve it by itself. Everyone should do what they can, and companies like Microsoft who have the resources to do more, should.”
“We know that our most important contribution will come not just from our actions, but how we empower our customers around the world,” stated Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. “Digital technology will play a crucial role in tackling these issues, and we will work to develop and deploy technology that helps our customers, from all sectors, reduce their own carbon footprints. This is the decade for urgent action, for Microsoft and for all of us to take bold steps forward to address our most pressing challenges. We hope you will join us on this journey, because each of us must commit to do more in order for us to collectively achieve more.”
Katerina Fulton, the correspondent’s daughter and a graduate in Environmental Science from Wittenberg University, contributed insight to this report.