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Carbon Policy:
Inside Microsoft's Efforts to Integrate Sustainability Into Its Financial Model

Originally written for and published on CSRwire's Commentary section, Talkback, on September 12, 2013.On July 1, 2012, Microsoft issued a new corporate policy across 14 business divisions in over 100 countries: Every division would now be accountable for its carbon emissions.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire's Commentary section, Talkback, on September 12, 2013.

On July 1, 2012, Microsoft issued a new corporate policy across 14 business divisions in over 100 countries: Every division would now be accountable for its carbon emissions.

Under the Carbon-Neutral and Carbon-Free Policies, the company put an internal price on carbon, where the divisions pay an incremental price linked with the carbon emissions associated with energy consumption and business air travel. The funds are then used to invest internally in energy efficiency, renewable energy and carbon offset projects globally.

A tad ambitious?

Not at all, believes TJ DiCaprio, Senior Director of Environmental Sustainability at Microsoft.

"We're following three pillars to achieve carbon neutrality: 1) Be lean through reducing our energy consumption by driving radical efficiency through use of technology, and reduce air travel to internal meetings. Our primary emissions, for example, come from our data centers' energy consumption. We also monitor and reduce energy consumption from our offices and software development labs. That’s roughly 30 million square feet worldwide," she explains.

The other two pillars: 2) Be green by investing in renewable energy and carbon offset projects; and 3) Be accountable through cascading an internal price on carbon globally.

The policies also help Microsoft employees band together beyond the usual. "By internalizing the otherwise external cost of pollution, the price of carbon is now part of the profit and loss statement across business divisions. We have now integrated this across the financial structure and engaged the executives and employees on our commitment to mitigating climate change and investing the funds appropriately," she says.

From Innovation & Efficiency to Sustainability

For a long time, the marketplace has associated the technology giant with innovation and efficiency. Now, the company is vying for a third accolade: sustainability.

Acknowledging the impact the company can have in swaying the entire marketplace, DiCaprio says: "We're constantly asking how we can lean and green our operations. Where can we not only drive efficiency, but also increase the percentage of renewable energy we purchase. How can we support the supply and demand and how can we drive progress through long term renewable energy purchase agreements."

Of course, there are other ways Microsoft is becoming greener. For instance, how can the company that reaches over 100 countries support carbon sequestration in developing countries? "When there is sustainability, education, and jobs — all of these tie together when we're discussing carbon offsets and supporting low-carbon economic development around the world. In fact, offsets are significantly important in extending our reach and value globally," she emphasizes.

Carbon Offsets: The Allure for Microsoft

In the last two weeks, I had heard similar sentiments from Barclays and Allianz, both financial institutions with global footprints — and investing significantly in carbon offsets. Why then was offsetting not spreading across more organizations? DiCaprio believes there are multiple factors, not least, a challenge in transparency.

"The market is maturing and we are seeing a more professional approach to using technology to manage and store data as well as established standards. There is a growing confidence in the ability of these projects to meet stiff criteria and standards, and to continue to meet these standards over time as cloud services allows for data to be managed and stored, demonstrating lower leakage. We employ a rigorous approach to our investments," she says.

Scale: Impact Through Leadership

Her only worry: without more private sector involvement, Microsoft's efforts will remain insular.

"This is an exciting time for the private sector to work across our stakeholders and create corporate policies that make sense for business and help support low-carbon economic development. One of the benefits of setting a carbon neutral policy and an internal carbon fee is to set an example for how a business can run more efficiently, reduce waste and carbon, and address its environmental footprint," she says.

"The model we have designed is simple and repeatable. The more organizations that adopt a similar model, the better off we will all be. The model is built to align with an organization’s priorities and business strategy while supporting the demand and supply of renewable energy and a low-carbon economy," she added.

Having recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the carbon fee implementation, DiCaprio believes it is fulfilling its purpose of bringing together the business mission and a priority of driving efficiency and developing low carbon economies. While the first year was focused on building the necessary infrastructure to flow through a financial cycle and get the price associated with emissions charged to business units, now DiCaprio also sees the importance of communicating the benefits of the successful model.

"The more we can communicate that carbon finance is a very effective way to integrate the cost of pollution into our economic structure, the more we can help others integrate carbon pricing and the impact of climate change into long term business planning," she says.

After all, it's about taking into account the true cost of doing business.

And DiCaprio's aspiration speaks to a global sentiment awaiting global acceptance: "We must understand quickly how to tie managerial accounting and the real cost of doing business with traditional financial models. For example, Microsoft pays for energy consumption but it also pays for the cost of offsetting the pollution associated with it. This is the direction we need to follow."

As the technology company continues its journey, DiCaprio hopes many more organizations will pivot and begin to leverage the "magic of creating and supporting new markets that support sustainability on a global basis." Only time will tell if once again Microsoft can attract some followers.

In keeping with its internal climate change-mitigation efforts, Microsoft last week became one of the latest signatories of the Climate Declaration, joining over 650 other companies calling on federal policymakers to seize the economic opportunity of addressing climate change.