Carbon Call: Microsoft among organizations joining effort to bolster accounting of CO2 emissions

Unfortunately, emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases aren’t this easy to visualize, making it challenging to figure out rigorous systems for calculating and reporting the pollution. (Matthias Heyde Photo / Unsplash)

More than 683 companies, 136 countries and 234 cities have made pledges to reach net-zero carbon emissions.

But for those goals to mean anything, all of these corporations and governments need to regularly add up and report their emissions. How that takes shape has, so far, run the gamut.

When it comes to counting and reporting emissions, “there isn’t going to be just one global system,” said Surabi Menon, vice president of global intelligence for ClimateWorks Foundation. “There is no one single ledger. There are different standards.”

So the San Francisco-based nonprofit is leading an effort called the Carbon Call that includes Microsoft, the Linux Foundation, and 11 other international organizations to support the development of a comprehensive, comparable, interoperable system of carbon tracking ledgers.

Bringing together this cohort and acknowledging this is an important problem is a significant first step, said Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer.

The Carbon Call will start by focusing on some key greenhouse gas emissions areas where there is more uncertainty and evolving science. They are:

  • land-use driven carbon emissions and carbon capture, including agriculture, timber harvest, forest and grassland conservation and park lands;
  • methane gas release, which is getting easier to measure using satellite images;
  • carbon removal via natural means like forests or through direct air capture technologies;
  • and corporations’ indirect emissions that include wide-ranging sources such as electricity use, consumers’ use of their products, business travel, transportation, waste disposal and employee commuting.

The Carbon Call isn’t building a ledger for reporting emissions, but will aid efforts that do. Given the essential role that digital technology plays in the accounting, Microsoft hopes “that our expertise can be helpful in the world figuring this out,” Joppa said.

There are multiple, well-funded companies offering tools for tracking climate emissions. This week, Watershed announced that it landed $70 million in new capital to support its platform; the company has a $1 billion valuation. In October, Persefoni announced a $101 million round for its carbon tallying business.

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The need for more accurate, transparent accounting is clear. In November, a Washington Post investigation found that globally, nations are underreporting their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 8.5 billion tons — an amount equal to the annual emissions from 1.85 billion cars.

And a report out this week analyzed carbon-cutting pledges and carbon reporting from 25 corporations, including multiple tech companies, and found worrying deficiencies. Sony and Apple had “moderate integrity” climate responsibility rankings, while Amazon and Google had “low integrity” scores. Accenture was ranked “very low.” Microsoft was not evaluated.

The assessment by NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch included companies whose combined emissions totaled roughly 5% of global greenhouse gases released in 2020.

Amazon was dinged for lacking details in its emissions, which indirect emissions were included in its accounting, and its nature-based carbon removal plans.

The company pushed back against the critique, and cited outside verification of their efforts. “Our own carbon footprint reporting is publicly available, and already meets the widely adopted international standard of the GHG Protocol and has been independently audited and verified by Apex according to the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 14064-3 verification,” said an Amazon spokesperson by email.

The Seattle-based company in 2019 created the Climate Pledge, which is a commitment to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2040. More than 200 signatories have joined the pledge, Microsoft included. Amazon, whose carbon emissions increased in recent years, has also committed to investing $2 billion in companies developing decarbonization technologies.

In something of a follow to the Climate Pledge, Microsoft, Starbucks and seven other companies in 2020 created the Transform to Net Zero coalition to support businesses who have committed to cutting emissions in reaching their goals.

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Other organizations teaming up for the Carbon Call include Climate Change AI, Climate Leadership Group Europe, Global Carbon Project, Global Council for Science and Environment, International Science Council, LF Energy, Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Skoll, United Nations Foundation and United Nations Environment Program.

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