By Trevor Dhu, Asia Lead, Sustainability Science, Microsoft
Climate change is an urgent threat to millions of lives – but there are solutions. At the heart of these lie collaboration and strong partnerships between the private sector, governments and civil society.
That reality is especially stark in Asia, a region highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
For a start, Asia is home to some of the world’s largest carbon emitters and accounted for 52 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2021. Forecasts also suggest that if climate change continues in an unmitigated way, we can expect to see increasing average temperatures, lethal heatwaves, extreme precipitation events, severe hurricanes, drought and changes in water supply by 2050.
If no action is taken, climate change is predicted to strip 26.5 per cent from Asia’s current gross domestic product by 2048. That’s because it will take a toll on key sectors such as agriculture, fishing and tourism – along with human health and labour productivity.
All this means there is real urgency for organizations in Asia to work together to drive a positive environmental impact at scale, right now.
Equally fundamental to driving progress is transparency. That’s why, guided by our commitments, we are providing a credible, robust and honest account of the successes, challenges and lessons learned along our journey in a new Environmental Sustainability Report.
Our report provides a comprehensive view of the steps we took globally during 2021 to become a carbon negative, water positive, zero waste company by 2030 and protect ecosystems by building a Planetary Computer. It also documents the massive wave of collective action that took place in Asia as we worked to foster partnerships and build sustainability solutions that can galvanise greater collective climate action across our region.
As the report reinforces, we are on a journey ‘from pledges to progress.’ It’s not an easy one, as progress is not linear, but it is a path we are committed to.
Getting to carbon negative
Our report shows that as part of our commitment to being a carbon negative company by 2030, Microsoft continued to break new ground in 2021 with additional carbon removal purchases and investments to help develop the crucial, but still nascent, carbon-reduction market. Activities included working with our $1 billion global Climate Innovation Fund to invest in promising carbon-removal companies and projects over four years, both in Asia and across the world.
For example, we invested in a portfolio of projects from Puro.earth, a B2B marketplace, standard and registry focused on carbon removal. Our portfolio includes CO2 Removal Certificates (CORCs) from small operations in Australia that use biomass residue – such as wood chips and forest waste – to sequester carbon dioxide in biochar for use in soil amendment and other products.
In Indonesia, via the Southeast Asia Clean Energy Facility, managed by Clime Capital, Microsoft invested in Xurya, a clean energy company committed to accelerating the rooftop solar market.
In China, we have partnered with Tsinghua University to develop a neural network-based atmosphere simulator that estimates carbon and other pollutant emissions with better accuracy than widely used numerical atmosphere models, while using only 1 per cent of the computational power.
Other collaborations focused on solutions to satisfy the growing global demand for renewable energy. For instance, in India our researchers worked with one of the country’s largest solar panel manufacturers to develop a machine learning–based computer vision system that can accurately detect and classify defects in solar panels as they are being manufactured. By fixing defects in real time, solar panel manufacturers can increase yield and reduce production costs.
Getting to water positive
Our sustainability report also shows the progress we made on our commitment to becoming a water positive company by 2030. In Asia, that saw us build on the steps already taken across our operations to reduce water consumption in our datacenters and campuses.
We also focused on harnessing the power of technology, partnerships, investments and policy to help our region more effectively address water availability and accessibility.
This saw us continue to work with Water.org to progress our commitment to provide 1.5 million people with access to clean water by 2030. So far, our support in Asia has focused on India and Indonesia, and will now expand to include China and Malaysia.
At the same time, our research teams worked to develop new technologies and approaches to ensure water efficiency.
To take just one example, we have partnered with FluxGen, an India-based sustainability startup that develops artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things water management solutions to make industries water positive. Our research will help companies develop the capability to ensure the accuracy of sensors they use to monitor leaks and water quality.
Getting to zero waste
As our report indicates, we’re adopting an increasingly circular approach to material management, to reduce waste and carbon emissions across our operations. That includes responsibly sourcing materials for our products and packaging, and increasing the use of recycled content. We also keep products and materials in longer use through reuse and repair programs.
In 2022, we’ll also be expanding our Circular Centers to more regions, including Singapore. That’s based on the success of our center in Amsterdam, which has achieved 83 percent reuse and 17 percent recycling of cloud hardware. Together, our centers globally are projected to save Microsoft $100 million each year once they are fully scaled, and enable 90 per cent reuse by 2025.
At the same time, we remain committed to helping customers, partners and suppliers in Asia reduce their waste footprints through the power of data, AI and digital technology. We partnered with Philippines-based nonprofit organization Plastic Credit Exchange (PCX), for example, to develop a blockchain-protected credit registry for a global plastic offset program, effectively reducing the flow of plastic waste to our landfills and oceans.
Working with the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, we create a digital platform using Microsoft Dynamics 365 to streamline the application process for businesses seeking a licence to export waste glass. The system provides detailed country-level data on exports of waste in near real time, improving Australia’s understanding of the evolving circular economy.
Protecting ecosystems and biodiversity
Our report also highlights the considerable progress Microsoft made over the past year towards protecting more land than we use. At the same time, we took steps towards delivering our Planetary Computer, a global platform that aggregates environmental data to help partners measure and manage healthy ecosystems.
Across Asia, we sought to broaden our collaborations across the public and private sectors, as well as within local communities, to develop strategies to improve ecosystem health. This work included supporting the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia to establish a climate intelligence platform that puts trusted and credible climate risk science in the hands of businesses in Australia and across the region. That way, enterprises can better assess, disclose, and manage their climate risks.
We have also been working with the Pacific Community (SPC), the principal scientific and technical organization for 27 of the countries and territories associated with the Pacific region. It is launching Digital Earth Pacific, a new analytics platform that will dig into the data constantly being amassed by scientists and earth observation satellites. Built on our Planetary Computer, the platform will use AI and immense processing power in the cloud to access, analyze and model data from multiple sources. The insights generated will help Pacific Island governments and planners make more informed decisions about how to overcome the challenges brought about by climate change, amongst other things.
Other projects included partnering with Conservation International and the National Parks Board of Singapore to develop a mobile application that helps accurately identify shark and ray species using technology such as computer vision and AI. This will enable ground inspectors at national borders to better prevent illegal trade in shark and ray products.
Ensuring a more sustainable future for all in Asia
As all these examples show, Microsoft believes it is through our collaborative efforts with our partners and allies that we can achieve more sustainable, inclusive growth in Asia.
As we continue to take responsibility for the impact of our footprint and work to improve efficiency in our Asia operations, devices and supply chain, we recognize that no one organization can drive reform at sufficient scale and speed.
We also recognize that being able to harness and analyse data effectively is a vital capability for countries, industries and companies seeking to be accountable for climate action progress.
That is why we will continue to collaborate with organizations across industries – working together, stride by stride – to leverage the power of cloud and AI, and allow them to better measure their impact and achieve their sustainability goals.
At the same time, we’ll continue to work to drive greater collaboration with Asia’s governments to set and fulfil clear sustainability commitments and co-innovate to achieve net zero by 2050.
Making pledges and commitments is the easy part. Strong ambition must become lasting action to make a real impact. Looking ahead, we’ll be redoubling our efforts to work as a trusted ally to accelerate our region’s sustainability plans, and make the transformative changes Asia needs to reach a net zero future – together.
Read more in our 2021 Environmental Sustainability Report.