business climate change

The companies offsetting their entire existence

The drive to ‘net zero’ has brought a new energy to climate action, but has also brought new levels of greenwash. Everyone has a net zero target to meet, but how that’s defined is a bit of a free-for-all. Interchangeable terms and vague commitments abound. But a small handful of companies are attempting to go bigger and better on their emissions.

When they start thinking about the impact on the climate, most companies are prepared to take on their direct operational emissions. Others are bolder and take responsibility for their supply chain. A select few extend their sense of responsibility to take on the emissions of their customers as they use their products. And then some look backwards as well as forwards, and add a fourth dimension: their historic emissions.

Microsoft is one of those firms, acting on all three of the first levels of carbon and then going further. “By 2030 Microsoft will remove more carbon than it emits, setting us on a path to remove by 2050 all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”

To put it another way, Microsoft isn’t just reducing its carbon footprint. It wants to erase it and go backwards, covering the carbon tracks of its last 48 years of business.

That’s ambitious. I’m only aware of two other companies doing anything similar, though drop any others you know in the comments. One is Alphabet, home of Google. Google claims to be carbon neutral, and has bought offsets for all their years of operation before reaching carbon neutrality. This is easier to do for a relatively young tech company than for many other kinds of businesses, but it’s still a huge task and it’s part of a much broader set of commitments.

The other one I know of is Velux, maker of roof windows and related products, developer of the Active House. The Danish firm was founded in 1941, and it plans to erase its historic emissions by its 100th anniversary. They call it ‘lifetime carbon neutral’, and they are working with WWF to fund forestry projects that will in time pull 5.6 million tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

That sounds like a big number, but it’s less than half of what Microsoft continues to put into the atmosphere every single year, and so it’s Microsoft that is attempting this at the biggest scale. If you’re going that big, planting trees isn’t going to be enough – especially since they may not survive. The Bootleg wildfire that spread through the Washington forests in 2021 toasted a lot of Microsoft’s offsets. As a tech company, they hope to move increasingly towards carbon removal technologies. At the moment those are fairly experimental and very expensive, but it’s major institutional support like theirs that will help to deliver economics of scale.

I know some people are sceptical of all corporate behaviour and will assume the worst of these examples too. Yes, offsetting is of limited usefulness, but it is still useful and it isn’t being used as an excuse for inaction here. If a company is only really interested in greenwashing its reputation, there’s no need to so far as the three firms here. You don’t raise the question of your historic emissions unless you’re serious about what you’re doing, and so I think this kind of ambition is worth celebrating. We should will them to succeed, and encourage more companies to walk back their carbon legacies.

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