Hello and welcome to series two of Microsoft Stories, a podcast about technology and innovation.
Over the course of this series we will speak to young people about the big issues affecting their lives and shaping their futures. We will also look at the companies and organisations playing a role in those issues, and explore how technology can be used to create innovative solutions.
We are kicking off this series with two episodes on sustainability – one of the most urgent issues of our time and a key focus for the UK with the COP26 summit being held in Scotland from October 31.
This episode focuses on the importance of measuring your carbon footprint so you can reduce it. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. We will look at the tools available to companies and individuals to help them do that, as well as hear from two young people who are passionate about the environment and the steps they take to lead greener lives. You will also hear from Microsoft’s European Sustainable Science Lead, as well as the Head of Climate Change at NatWest about the work these two companies are doing to help protect the planet.
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Transcript of this episode
Hello and welcome to series two of Microsoft Stories, a podcast about technology and the people who use it. I’m your host Katie Gale, Philanthropies Co-ordinator at Microsoft UK. In this series I will be talking to young people and finding out about the big issues affecting their lives and shaping their futures. I also want to learn about the companies and experts who play key roles in those issues. And how does technology fit into all this and how can it be used to help tackle some of the most important challenges facing the world today?
Let’s find out!
The first two episodes of this series will focus on one of the most urgent issues of our time: Sustainability. I want to hear from the generations who will be most impacted by four areas that Microsoft views as urgent priorities:
Carbon, Water, Waste and Ecosystems. How do the views of young people on sustainability influence the companies they use, and what do they do to reduce their own impact on our planet? I also want to explore what companies are doing to help people like you and me be a bit greener.
But there’s a critical side to the sustainability issue that people rarely think about that I also want to explore. That’s measurement. Companies usually jump from “we need to do something about our impact on the world” to “this is what we are going to do” without spending much time understanding how big their footprint really is. Knowing the size of a problem is pretty fundamental to solving it, when you think about it. By the end of this podcast, you should be able to know what you can do to measure your carbon footprint.
The world needs measurement tools that can be deployed at scale, so everyone can use them. There aren’t many companies that can do that. Microsoft, with a global cloud platform, and IoT and data tools, is definitely one of them.
Measurement is one of Microsoft’s three Ms of carbon reduction – the others being the meaning of Net Zero and the markets needed to support reaching that goal. That’s why we have announced the Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, which is designed to help companies measure, understand and take charge of their carbon emissions, set sustainability goals and take measurable action.
Here’s Alberto Arribas Herranz, European Sustainable Science Lead for Microsoft, to explain more about measurement.
ALBERTO: For us, Net Zero really means that the atmosphere doesn’t receive more emissions of carbon dioxide from humans, and if you want to achieve zero emissions, you really need to be able to measure the amount of CO2 that we emit, and measuring these emissions is difficult.
In fact, it’s much easier to measure the actual content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because we have sensors and we can take samples of the air and count how many particles of carbon dioxide we have in the atmosphere.
Every year humanity pumps more than 50 billion metric tonnes of additional greenhouse gases into the air. How much of that am I responsible for when I turn on a light, or drive my car to the supermarket, or stream a film? Honestly, I have no idea. And I bet you don’t either.
Alberto is saying it’s much harder to measure the climate impact of individual actions and products. How do you measure the carbon footprint of a sandwich, for example?
ALBERTO: So that sandwich is going to have bread and you will need to know how much CO2 was emitted when the wheat grew, how much CO2 was emitted when the wheat was made into flour, and how much was emitted when that flour went into the oven to bake the bread.
And let’s imagine you have some lettuce and tomato in that sandwich. The growing of those vegetables also generated carbon emissions, and finally the packaging and the transportation of the sandwich also generated CO2. So something as simple as a sandwich, when you look into it, has many components and many elements that you need to be able to measure, and that’s a really big supply chain that you need to be able to disentangle if you want to address the measuring problem.
That’s something to think about next time you pop out for lunch!
So, from what Alberto says, in order to measure the carbon footprint of any company we need to be able to measure and trace the data across the whole supply chain – that requires that we share data in a secure and safe way, so consumers at the end of that chain can truly understand the environmental impact of the things they buy and consume. Think of the nutrition information you get on food today, but for carbon emissions.
Microsoft can help with measuring these data points. Putting sensors on billions of air conditioning units, lifts, lights, factory equipment and lorries can help us keep track of their performance and, ultimately, their carbon footprint. The question then is, what do you do with all that data streaming in and how do you make sense of it?
If it’s stored in the Microsoft Azure cloud, the companies that collected the data can analyse it and turn it into decisions – using human knowledge and AI tools also available in Azure.
In fact, all that data could be used to create a digital twin of the real world that can model entire and complex environments in real-time! That would help us better understand what is going on.
And we can go a step further, by combining Digital Twins with AI, we can create models that help automate processes and make better decisions. For example, in building management, IoT sensors could detect room occupancy and turn off lights or air conditioning when empty. Combining this with regular reporting, you can see where your high-usage zones are and get AI-powered insights on low-efficiency scenarios.
The Microsoft Azure cloud enables all this to happen. And because it’s global, fast and reliable, it’s perfect for helping people tackle big and complex problems.
The complexity of the challenges and the steps we must take to address them is something the company will be talking about at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in November.
Microsoft has been named as a Principal Partner for the event, which is also known as COP26, which will bring companies, organisations and governments together to drive positive action for our planet.
Young people across the world will be watching – and they will want to see results. They want ambition paired with action.
CIARA: I think especially our generation, our age group. We’re the ones that have to deal with it for years and years to come, so it’s really important that we do our best now to fix it before it’s too late.
That was Ciara, a 25-year-old from London, and one of the many young people we have spoken to for this podcast who is supported by charity and social business Catch22. She cares a lot about climate change, and it influences how she spends her money, Ciara tries to choose companies that care about climate. She understands the power young people have when it comes to forcing change at companies.
CIARA: If our generation are the ones that say “no, we’re not actually going to contribute to that” or “we’re not going to buy into what they’re doing because we don’t like the way they do things”, that’s going to make a huge difference.
A lot of what I try and do depends on how I’m buying things, how I spend my money, because obviously problems like fast fashion and stuff like that can be really detrimental and contribute a lot to the problems that we’re having.
In September, six UK universities released a global survey that showed the depth of anxiety many young people are feeling about climate change. The survey revealed that nearly 60% of young people said they felt very worried or extremely worried about climate change; more than 45% of those questioned said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives; and three-quarters of them said they thought the future was frightening.
Many of those surveyed said they felt ignored by older generations who have the power to make the decisions and take the actions that can change the lives of billions of people.
But how can we help those that are making decisions today?
So, again, we come back to the importance of measuring carbon footprints. But how do you do that for every company in every country? Microsoft is helping companies everywhere to connect with customers and offer them measurement tools.
One great example is the financial services company NatWest, which has collaborated with Microsoft on the Cut The Carbon project. This offers carbon footprint measurement tools to the bank’s corporate customers.
Here’s James Close, Head of Climate Change at NatWest, to explain why the bank wanted to roll out the project.
JAMES: What we’ve noticed is that there’s a really high degree of interest for those people that we’ve approached and talked to. These are mainly businesses that are on a smaller-scale, pilot, co-creation approach. And as they go through the conversation with us, they become more and more engaged and more committed to using the techniques and the technology to understand their carbon footprint and then to figure out what they can do about reducing it. And the statistic we use is that 86% of small and medium-sized enterprises are committed to developing sustainability strategies but about half of them don’t know where to start, so this is a great way of helping them figure out not just where to start, but where they start and what they can do about it.
I think that is a really good example of the collaboration where we’ve recognised the need that the customers have and we’ve also recognised that Microsoft has the leading technology and we’re trying to put that together for the benefit of our customers.
But NatWest is also turning the “green microscope” on itself and looking at how it can improve its own sustainability efforts.
JAMES: We wanted to put our own house in order because we obviously have a pretty big footprint through our branches and through what we do in our technology and also what our staff do in terms of travel.
The only way we’ve been able to do that is to put in place high-quality measurement systems to understand where we started from and where we’re heading.
What I find really interesting is that even global banks – which probably aren’t top of mind for most young people – are responding to their demands for more sustainable products and effective ways of measuring and tackling their carbon footprints.
NatWest is launching an app that will help students understand the carbon footprints in different areas of their life and support them if they want to make changes to be greener.
It can have real impact for those young people who want to play a role in saving the planet but don’t know where to start. Again, it starts with measuring your actions.
Jeffery is a 25-year-old from London. He is passionate about climate change and although he usually chooses the greenest options as he goes about his day, he feels it would be handy to know if he could be doing more. He feels technology could play a key role here.
JEFFERY: Me, personally, I try to take more public transport, so I try not to drive as much just because the more cars there is on the road, the more emissions we are going to be causing. So I try to take public transport. If not I try to walk or cycle.
So that’s one way I help. I’ve also actually switched all my bulbs in the house to LED lights so… They, from what I’ve been told, and I’ve already done research about it, they do consume less energy, so I’m also being conscious about how much electricity we use and how much waste we let out.
I believe that some of the technologies do help in terms of cutting down on emissions.
Microsoft has been the one that I’ve read and researched about that seems to be going into the right direction, in order to offset and becoming (carbon) negative in the future.
Ciara, meanwhile, believes technology could also play a key role in helping people and organisations become more sustainability. She highlighted how plastics could be transformed into other, useful materials once it has been used.
CIARA: So I think that’s going to help with a lot of problems, especially since a lot of plastic ends up in the sea or apparently even in the soil it ends up.
That’s another topic that’s come around recently with microplastics and how it’s kind of in all of us, so it’s definitely something we need to get hold of and control. And obviously technology is going to be a good way to do that, and I think as we keep evolving and technology gets better, obviously it’s going to get better at helping this situation.
Whatever the future holds for technology in the fight against climate change, Microsoft is trying to influence positive change starting by providing a solid foundation on how to measure carbon footprints. It’s coming at the right time, because governments across the world are not just reminding companies to report their emissions, they are forcing them to do so.
Here’s Alberto from Microsoft again.
ALBERTO: So another aspect that is worth highlighting in terms of the importance of measuring is that until now it has been a voluntary activity, so a lot of companies are now starting to report their emissions and try to measure their own emissions.
So very soon this is going to be a fully regulated area and that’s another very important reason for really putting effort into measuring and making sure that this can be done as easily as possible.
And once a company has an accurate measurement of their carbon footprint, they can use tools such as Microsoft’s Planetary Computer, which allows companies and organisations to download a raft of open source data, captured from across the world, combine it with their own tools, systems and information, and create solutions that are bespoke to them.
Imagine the positive climate impact that could lead to!
So, you’ve heard about the problem and the tech that could help people tackle it. But what can you go and do after you finish listening to this podcast?
If you’re a company, use IoT devices and the cloud to capture data on your operations. Once you’ve done that, get some more. And then get a bit more after that. You can never have enough information about what you’re doing and the impact you’re having, because that will inform what you do next.
Run analytics tools on that data so you can spot trends and anomalies, and use Power BI to visualise the information to understand what’s going on. In certain scenarios you could even visualise IoT telemetry in Mixed Reality, providing frontline workers with the data they need, in context to their work environment.
The key is to then act on that data, take steps to transform your business and become a company that influences others to be greener.
If you’re a young person, here’s what you can do: Those companies need people with the digital skills to make that sustainability change happen. You can get those skills – in IoT, cloud computing, data analysis, data science – even comms and marketing so the company can talk about what it’s doing.
I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today. Make sure you look out for the next episode of Microsoft Stories soon. Bye for now!
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