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Historic carbon removal on the rise

Published September 16, 2020

Historic carbon removal on the rise

When Google announced recently that it had eliminated its entire carbon legacy, it joined a select group of companies that are taking such radical steps beyond net zero.

So far, only two other companies, Microsoft and Danish roof window manufacturer Velux have made the commitment to wipe away historic carbon emissions.

Google claims to have used carbon offsets to eliminate its carbon legacy, effective from the day of the announcement. Taking into account all their operational emissions since becoming carbon neutral in 2007, Google’s lifetime net carbon footprint is now zero.

In January, Microsoft announced it would not only become carbon negative by 2030, but also that by 2050 it will remove all of the carbon from the environment that the company has emitted, whether directly or through electricity consumption, since its founding in 1975.

And earlier this month, Velux announced it would negate emissions over an even greater period, all the way back to 1941. Their goal is to reduce future carbon emissions and capture its historical carbon footprint since its founding, all in all totaling 5.6 million tonnes of CO2. With Velux’s 100th anniversary coming up in 2041, it plans to mark the occasion by becoming Lifetime Carbon Neutral.

Going forward, Google aims to run their business 100% on carbon-free energy by 2030.

The company also plans to help:

  • Enable 5GW of carbon-free energy across their key manufacturing regions through investment
  • More than 500 cities to reduce 1 gigaton annually of carbon emissions through climate planning tools
  • 1 billion people who use Google products to make more sustainable choices

“We are committed to doing our part. Sustainability has been a core value for us since Larry and Sergey founded Google two decades ago. We were the first major company to become carbon neutral in 2007. We were the first major company to match our energy use with 100 percent renewable energy in 2017. We operate the cleanest global cloud in the industry, and we’re the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy. In our third decade of climate action, we are going even further to help build a carbon-free future for everyone,” said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, in a press release.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has put together a comprehensive plan to achieve its 2030 carbon emissions reduction target, in the hopes of removing more carbon than it emits. This will help put the company on path towards the more challenging second target of offsetting historic emissions.

The initial focus will be towards potential nature-based solutions such as afforestation (a process where new forests are planted across land without trees) and reforestation. The company then plans to move on to technology-based solutions such as carbon capture and storage and direct air capture, among other options.

The company will speed up the development of carbon removal technology through a “Climate Innovation Fund”, which will invest $1 billion over the next four years for the effort.

“The only way we can go forward is actually to take steps that will remove carbon from the environment,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, adding that “the technology that we will need to solve this problem does not exist today, at least not in the way that would make it affordable and effective the way the world would require.”

Velux will, much like Microsoft, invest in forest conservation projects to help stop habitat loss, prevent deforestation and land degradation, grow new forests, and protect existing ones.

“It’s an innovative new commitment concept involving a 20-year partnership with WWF to capture the equivalent of our historical carbon emissions by 2041,” said David Briggs, CEO of the Velux Group. “We will also dramatically reduce our future CO2 emissions and ask our suppliers to do the same. Hopefully other companies will be inspired to become ‘Lifetime Carbon Neutral’ in order to create a sustainable future for all.”

Of course, these companies have the capital to invest in such projects, and its hard to imagine that many others will be able to follow suit. If a trend is set, it may just be for those businesses that can afford it.

“There’s an emerging trend to go beyond scientific net zero. Obviously, new companies, or those with a small emissions history, will find this easier than those with potentially huge historic liabilities.  Legatees of British Steel, for example, could not afford to pay off decades of carbon debt given the difficulty of making money in that sector, but for others in sectors with a smaller historic footprint it may be doable. If you think there is something controversial about setting a net zero target, take a look at what these firms are doing,” said Jeremy Nicholson, Corporate Affairs Officer at Alfa Energy Group.

Microsoft, for example, already has an internal price on carbon that it uses to fund sustainable development. This means it has a good way to monitor its own emissions. The company has visibility of its scopes and has put in place a thorough plan of tackling each scope, such as:

  • Shifting to 100% renewable energy by 2025, which will include power purchase agreements for green energy contracted for 100% of carbon emitting electricity consumed by all data centers, buildings, and campuses
  • Electrifying its global campus operations vehicle fleet by 2030
  • Pursuing International Living Future Institute Zero Carbon certification and LEED Platinum certification for the Silicon Valley Campus and Puget Sound Campus Modernization projects
  • Reducing scope 3 emissions by more than half by 2030 through phasing in its current internal carbon tax by July 2020

Both Microsoft and Velux, however, are focusing on eliminating only past emissions from direct operations and electricity.  While the vast majority of corporate emissions are Scope 3, tackling past supply chain emissions is just too big a task for either company.

As usual, there have been some criticisms. For instance, Microsoft employees have pointed out that company still works with fossil fuel companies, going so far as to release a letter in September of last year demanding zero contracts with fossil fuel companies, zero funding for politicians pushing climate denial, and zero emissions by 2030.

CNBC also noted that some of the technology Microsoft is looking to invest in may not be financially viable for a while: “Microsoft’s plan appears to lean more heavily toward new technologies, such as direct air capture….Microsoft president Brad Smith noted not all of the technology Microsoft would use is commercially available yet. Direct air capture, according to a 2018 report by the Innovation for Cool Earth Forum, is estimated to cost between $300 and $600 per ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere. This is well above the $100 per ton that experts consider the threshold of commercial viability.”

Still, Microsoft “is at the helm of what could be a new movement towards negative emissions”, Elizabeth V Sturcken of the Environmental Defense Fund said in a Guardian article.

As for Google’s announcement, Elizabeth Jardim, senior corporate campaigner at Greenpeace USA, told the BBC,: “Today’s announcement, combined with Google’s promise in May to no longer create artificial intelligence solutions for upstream oil and gas exploration, shows that Google takes its role in combating climate change seriously,”

However, BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin said “the claim to have ‘offset’ all of Google’s historical carbon ‘debt’ needs scrutiny…its offsets so far have focused mainly on capturing natural gas where it’s escaping from pig farms and landfill sites. But arguably governments should be ensuring this happens anyway.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear that leading-edge companies, and investors are taking net zero targets and the climate crisis seriously. These are radical steps, which in no way deflect from smaller-scale commitments other businesses can make in helping to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. It will be interesting to see what similar steps other large corporations take in the weeks and months to come, but more importantly how “smaller” businesses also move forward on the road to net zero.