Microsoft’s Carbon Overshoot

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    “Start a post, try writing with AI” is how LinkedIn has recently taken to greeting me, in a clear sign that the robots are starting to groom us humans for imminent domination by creating technological dependencies in every aspect of our lives.  Do I really need artificial intelligence (AI) to help me write a couple of lines on a social media platform?  This is a rhetorical question, Alexa, I am not asking you.

    Earlier this year the powers-that-be gathered in Davos for their yearly World Economic Forum shindig.  On the agenda was the latest edition of the Global Risk Report, which is put together over the preceding months by 1,200 experts.  The number one risk that was identified over the coming two years was ‘Misinformation and Disinformation’.  To quote the report: “Over the next two years, the widespread use of misinformation and disinformation, and tools to disseminate it, may undermine the legitimacy of newly elected governments. Resulting unrest could range from violent protests and hate crimes to civil confrontation and terrorism.”

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    Key to this risk are the ‘tools for dissemination’.  Politics has always been a dirty game, and people have long tried to spread disinformation to get one over their rivals.  The difference now is that thanks to the valiant efforts of some Silicon Valley tech bros, creating convincing fake media items is easier and cheaper than ever with AI tools.  The Chinese state is already spreading its propaganda via various odd-looking AI news anchors.  An attempt was made to influence a primary election in the US this year when an AI-generated Joe Biden soundalike targeted voters by telephone.  Confusingly, the current and soon-to-be ex-prime minister of the UK appears AI-generated in his interactions with the public but that is just his personality.  So why the beef with AI?  Is this just another scatter-gun Laundromat rant, perhaps driven by Luddism and an unspoken fear of being replaced?

    AI can be brilliant.  Put it to work scanning lung x-rays and it can save many human lives.  However, it does seem characteristic of humans to get completely carried away with new inventions.  The Laundromat believes that AI has no serious role to play in the creative process.  It relies entirely on prior human output to produce anything.  I therefore cannot see it as a credible threat to the likes of Charles Dickens, Miles Davis, or Richard Pryor.  The human mind is uniquely and wonderfully weird.  Nevertheless, not for the first time the Laundromat feels like a lonely voice lost in a cacophony of AI hysteria.  Everything must be done by microchips!  Even the most mundane tasks like switching on your car windscreen wipers are taken away from us for no apparent reason or benefit.  The relentless AI march goes on even as some of its key instigators step away from it over fears that safety is being sacrificed in favour of purely commercial considerations.

    This brings us to Microsoft, which last week released its 2024 Environmental Sustainability Report.  Along with Apple, Alphabet, NVIDIA, and Amazon, the US tech giant is a mainstay of ESG investment funds.  Its sustainability report is indeed highly impressive, with a level of transparency and detail seldom seen in such publications.  Unfortunately, it reveals that the company’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased by 29.1% in 2023 despite its commitment to become carbon negative by 2030.  As clearly shown on the diagram below, the direction of travel is nowhere near the pathway towards net-zero, let alone the carbon negative target.

    Source: Microsoft 2024 Environmental Sustainability Report

    The sharp year-on-year rise in GHG emissions has coincided with Microsoft’s multi-billion dollar push into AI.  The carbon footprint of the world’s data centres exceeds that of global aviation.  This begs the question: How does Microsoft reconcile its ambitious climate targets with its all-in commitment to developing AI?  According to Duncan Austin, a former partner at Generation Investment Management and now lecturer on sustainability, the discrepancy between Microsoft’s climate targets and current rate of GHG emissions should be ringing alarm bells with shareholders: “When companies’ profits are 30% off, there is usually strong selling.  What Microsoft’s sustainability miss makes clear is that it is not a sustainable company and is becoming less so.  ESG investors ought to be striking Microsoft off their lists of acceptable investments.”

    Microsoft may believe that technology will come to the rescue in the form of developments in energy efficiency and carbon capture.  On 22 May 2024 the company announced a major deal with Denmark’s Ørsted involving the offsetting of several million tonnes of carbon over the coming decade.  The carbon removal will originate from the Danish energy company’s Avedøre Power Station, which is part of its Kalundborg CO2 Hub Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) project.  This sounds good, but the jury is very much still out on the viability and scalability Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).  It is at best a peripheral tool in the climate action toolbox, so how will Microsoft really be able to get its net-zero ambitions back on track?  Perhaps we should ask Alexa, Siri, or Microsoft’s own Copilot.

    Disclaimer: This article was written by a human on Microsoft Word.

    Image courtesy of Alex Knight on Unsplash
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