Exclusive Interview with Dr. Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s first Chief Environmental Officer, by Maëva Ghonda — Sustainability Briefs™ by Maëva
Speech Transcript from Sustainability Conference
Maëva Ghonda’s Opening Remarks: It’s been more than three decades since the report of the World Commission expressed concern about the urgent challenges facing our global society as it relates to sustainability. Sustainability, as the document defines it, is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This report ― which was delivered to the 42nd United Nations’ General Assembly in 1987 ― called on governments to collaborate with NGOs, the scientific community, as well as private enterprises to produce sustainability goals that would benefit humanity. It emphasized that sustainability should become a central guiding principle of the United Nations, governments, as well as public and private organizations.
In 2012, due to lack of significant progress towards the previous UN sustainability strategies since that 1987 meeting, UN Member States met at a conference in Brazil and adopted the outcome document named: “The Future We Want.” In this document, the UN Member states resolved to develop a set of sustainable development goals.
More recently, 6 years ago ― in 2015 ― all UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included 17 Sustainable Development Goals also known as the UN SDGs or the Global Goals. The objective of this framework was to produce universal Sustainable Development Goals to tackle the urgent challenges facing our global society. And, at the forefront of these urgent challenges is the climate emergency.
Climate change is the crisis of our time. It defines this era. The climate crisis catapulted to the top of the global agenda with the adoption of the Paris Agreement. Effectively, the Paris Agreement is the catalyst guiding climate mitigation at global scale. As the legally-binding international treaty to combat climate change, the Paris Agreement is a critical multilateral accord for humanity.
Adopted by 196 parties on the 12th of December 2015, at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21), this legal contract is a vital part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. To realize a climate neutral world by mid-century, as articulated in the Paris Agreement, signatories seek to limit the average global temperature increase below 1.5℃. Consequently, this long-term temperature goal is now a primary aim of many nation-states, private enterprises, research organizations as well as NGOs and academic institutions.
The climate crisis extends beyond national borders. Hence, contending with this climate emergency mandates united effort at an international level.
During this exclusive interview, Dr. Lucas Joppa and I discussed some of the challenges and opportunities ahead as well as best practices, standards and case studies. Lucas and I also reviewed Microsoft’s ambitious sustainability goals and the increasingly important role of Quantum Computing, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data in measuring, managing and modeling environmental impact for a sustainable, net-zero future.
Dr. Lucas Joppa is the first Chief Environmental Officer at Microsoft, a leading platform provider of technology solutions to environmental challenges. In this role, Lucas leads the development and execution of Microsoft’s sustainability strategy across its worldwide business. He drives Microsoft’s core commitment to sustainability through ongoing technological innovations.
Maëva: Dr. Joppa — Welcome!
Lucas: Thank you so much for having me here.
Maëva: Thank you so much for accepting my invitation! I would like to start by asking an important question regarding a common refrain we often hear: Companies are under pressure from multiple stakeholders — i.e. NGOs, governments, consumers, investors, etc. — to take climate action. What is the motivation for Microsoft to take action? Why is sustainability important to Microsoft?
Lucas: We listen to all stakeholders. You have listed many of them. There is obvious increasing concern from all stakeholders. And, they are all important to us. One of the things that we think about a lot at Microsoft is the scale at which we operate. We truly do operate at a global socioeconomic scale. And, what that means is that, for Microsoft to do well, we need the world to do well. That’s the scale at which we operate. It’s not possible for Microsoft to do well when the world doesn’t. That may not be true for smaller businesses and niche markets. But, for Microsoft, it’s definitely true. And, what’s just become increasingly clear is that, unless we figure out a way to stabilize our climate systems, the world is not going to do well.
At Microsoft, we have a long history — basically since we were founded back in 1975 — of thinking pretty proactively about the future and investing in the technologies that we think are going to be necessary to build the future that we want to operate in. We want an economy and a society that we can do business in. And so, to do that, we need to build programs to help stabilize our climate. That is ultimately why we are doing this. Because as goes the world so goes Microsoft.
And, it’s very, very clear. You’ve mentioned some United Nations reports. For us, we have been following the science for a long time. I am an environmental scientist myself. But, it was really the IPCC special report on climate change 1.5℃ that, I think, shook the world a little bit in highlighting just how non-linear the impact is felt by society. If we want to avert the worst socioeconomic impacts of a rapidly changing climate, then we really do need to start focusing on how we keep global temperature change below 1.5℃.
The numbers are pretty scary. If you look, we have a carbon budget of about 420 gigatons left — or 420 billion tons of emissions left — before we cross that 1.5℃ mark. We’re spending about 42 billion tons of carbon every year, or if you include all greenhouse gases and make them equivalent to carbon through their global warming potential, that puts you at about 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) equivalents that we’re spending every year. That really puts us on track in the next decade to exceed our carbon budget for a 1.5℃ future. That’s really what’s motivating us right now. That’s why everyone calls this the decade of action. Because the math says it is.
Maëva: Last year, Microsoft made a series of ambitious commitments to become a carbon negative, water positive, zero waste company. What progress have you made thus far regarding these commitments?
Lucas: Well, we talked a lot about first setting industry-leading commitments and then delivering industry-leading results. And so, the commitments that we set, we paid attention to the best available science. We did a lot of reading and a lot of listening about what we needed to do. And, that’s really where these commitments came from: To be a carbon negative, water positive, zero waste company-and to protect more land than we use. On the carbon negative commitment, there’s some specific details there about what we meant. What we meant was that we would reduce our emissions by half or more and then physically remove the rest from the atmosphere by 2030. And then, between 2030 and 2050, we will not just continue to zero out our emissions on an annual basis from reduction and removal, but we’ll also remove an equivalent amount of CO₂ from the atmosphere as we’ve been associated with having emitted since we were founded in 1975. There’s a historical legacy aspect to our commitments.
We committed to being 100% renewable energy by 2025 by moving all of our data centers off of diesel backup generators, by electrifying our global campus vehicle fleets and a whole host of other actions, including putting a real price on carbon. Not a shadow price, but a price that everybody pays into to drive the behavior change that’s needed to reduce the carbon emissions across our portfolio-also, to fund the carbon removal that we will need to purchase.
Over the past year, we’ve made quite a bit of progress actually. We just released our renewable energy commitments. We’re well ahead of schedule for meeting our 100% renewable energy by 2025 commitments. There are recent reports that just came out this week that show the largest renewable energy purchasers in the world and Microsoft now sits clearly at the top of that stack. I am quite proud and pleased to see the work that the team has done there.
Maëva: How can Quantum Computing, Artificial Intelligence, and Big Data help us secure a sustainable future? What are some anticipated challenges and opportunities?
Lucas: If we start specifically with quantum computing, direct air capture is very inefficient. It is largely a very energy intensive chemical process. There are a few different ways that these operations work, but they all need some sort of carbon capture catalyst. We know that materials discovery, catalyst discovery is an extremely slow process. We know that quantum algorithms would be ideal for finding some of these new catalysts for carbon capture and also for things like fertilizer production that are very large emitters of emissions today. When we look into the future and having real quantum computers, things like catalyst discovery, materials discovery have the potential to really significantly change the game in our ability to capture carbon at scale from ambient air.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.