Apr 15, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Microsoft commits to land conservation, plots new digital platform

Microsoft CEO Brad Smith

Microsoft President Brad Smith. Photo: Rita Franca/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Microsoft is unveiling plans for a new digital platform for environmental data and committing to conserve more land than it operates on in the next five years. 

The big picture: The pursuits, a follow-up to the tech giant’s big climate change goal earlier this year, is one of the first major corporate announcements on environmental issues since the coronavirus pandemic erupted, causing many such initiatives to be put on hold.

What they're saying: “There’s never been a more important time to be keeping our foot on the accelerator of our sustainability work and not taking it off,” Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief sustainability officer, told Axios Tuesday, adding that the company hadn’t delayed the announcement.

  • Joppa was referring to the general connection between wildlife and ecosystems — the coronavirus likely came from a live wildlife market in China — and humanity.

Driving the news: That point was also mentioned in a blog post by President Brad Smith Wednesday. The announcement includes two main parts:

  1. The tech giant will conserve more than the 11,000 acres it operates on globally — about three-quarters the size of Manhattan — within five years.
  2. It also unveiled plans to create a new cloud-based platform, called Planetary Computer, which will be connected with Microsoft’s AI for Earth program announced 2.5 years ago. Users will be able to more quickly aggregate and assess environmental data, like the quality of forests and wildlife. Greenhouse gas emission data isn’t in the specific plan as of yet, but Joppa says it could be in the future.

One level deeper: “It should be as easy for anyone in the world to search the state of the planet as it is to search the Internet for driving directions or dining options,” Smith said in the blog post about the platform.

What we don’t know: A few important things… 

  • The exact timing of when the platform will launch. A spokeswoman says the first datasets will be available to users of Microsoft's cloud-computing service Azure later this year.
  • To what extent people will pay to use the platform.
  • Microsoft also isn't disclosing how much money it's committing to this announcement, including both its efforts to conserve land and build out the new platform.

Between the lines: Joppa says a common theme running through this move, the company’s earlier climate announcement, and forthcoming initiatives on waste and water, is the digitization of the energy and environmental sectors in ways that already exist in other parts of our lives.

  • That will, of course, help the bottom line of a tech giant like Microsoft. 
  • “Yeah, but for Microsoft to do well, the world needs to do well,” Joppa said.

The other side: Microsoft, along with other tech companies, has faced criticism from activists for continuing deals with oil and gas companies even while ramping up aggressive action on climate change.

What's next: Expect more focus on environmental issues leading up to and on April 22, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Go deeper: Microsoft vows to become carbon-negative by 2030

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