FUNAFUTI, TUVALU –Last year, Microsoft announced that it will be carbon-negative by 2030. “If we don’t curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb,” the firm said on its official blog, “science tells us that the results will be catastrophic.” Microsoft deserves credit for publicly discussing the climate crisis, being transparent about its own greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, and at least having some sort of plan to reduce them.
But the elephant in the room is that Microsoft is one of the top ten corporate buyers of commercial flights in the United States. Before the pandemic, in the financial year 2019, the firm’s business travel alone accounted for 392,557 metric tons of GHG emissions.
That’s far more than my entire Pacific island country emits in a year. Tuvalu is well known for its vulnerability to the effects of climate change. We contribute almost nothing to global GHG emissions, but their consequences affect us on a monthly or even daily basis.
Microsoft’s high level of corporate air travel is not a good look for a company that talks big on climate, sustainability, and racial justice, especially one that literally has its own videoconferencing platform. Surely an advanced tech firm that claims to be “reimagining virtual collaboration for the future of work” should practice what it preaches, crank up Microsoft Teams, and fly less.
But Microsoft is hardly an outlier among tech firms. Five of the ten largest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. These digital giants, along with the big consulting firms, are also among the top buyers of flights globally.
Although one might expect these big, growing companies’ large number of employees to fly to many meetings, there are plenty of even bigger employers that fly less. Companies that tout technological innovation as the key to tackling climate change should be savvy enough to use video calls, rather than shuttle employees around the planet on airlines that before the pandemic burned 7-8 million barrels of oil per day – more than India.
In May last year, a paper in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the pause to aviation accounted for 10% of the decrease in global emissions during COVID-19 lockdowns. Given that only 4% of the global population took an international flight in 2018, and that half of all aviation emissions come from just 1% of the global population, this outsize impact shows not only how often the 1% fly, but also that flying is a function of privilege. And according to the International Air Transport Association, many, if not the majority, of frequent flyers are businesspeople.
Microsoft, which is so committed to business travel that it has its own priority check-in lane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, sits near the top of a highly unequal and skewed global carbon hierarchy. The wealthiest (and often the whitest) pollute the most, while those who emit the least – predominantly people of color, the socially vulnerable, and inhabitants of the Global South, including the Pacific – bear the costs.
Comparatively wealthy flyers must recognize their responsibility to those less fortunate, who deserve to live without fear of global warming’s effects. Climate-vulnerable people want to maintain their homes and identities as citizens of their country, rather than being forced to migrate elsewhere.
If concern for equality and climate justice won’t cure Big Tech’s corporate flight addiction, maybe money will. The profits of Amazon and other large technology firms soared during last year’s lockdowns, even when commercial flights were reduced to zero for many months.
Chief financial officers and accountants are therefore now wondering whether the expense of business flights makes any sense. Employees can hold more meetings in a day via videoconference, and business flyers say the pause in air travel either had no impact on their productivity, or actually improved it.
Bill Gates has predicted that business travel will decline by half after the pandemic. If that’s the baseline, then what would a company truly committed to urgent climate action do?
With that question top of mind, a coalition of NGOs, activists, and Microsoft customers recently launched JustUseTeams.com, calling on Microsoft to take the lead and announce that it will permanently lock in all of its 2020 reduction in business flights. Once Microsoft shows some leadership on this issue, the campaign will expand to other tech firms. On the road to net-zero emissions, any step that advances that goal while saving a company millions of dollars a year should be considered low-hanging fruit.
Tech firms will claim that they have been trying to pluck it, but their actions are inadequate to the climate crisis we face. Microsoft, for example, is part of an initiative to promote sustainable fuels. But the airline industry has consistently failed to meet its own targets for scaling up such fuels, which still account for less than 0.1% of the sector’s use.
Meanwhile, many Big Tech firms buy “carbon credits,” and maintain that this somehow erases or “offsets” their own flight emissions. But this claim is losing whatever scientific credibility it once may have had. A recent investigation revealed that the most popular carbon-offset scheme used by airlines is based on a flawed system, in which so-called “phantom credits” are often sold on the promise to protect forest areas that were never at risk of being cut down. In reality, neither airlines nor their biggest corporate customers are in a position to claim that their flights are “carbon neutral.”
Microsoft and other big technology companies therefore must commit to remain permanently at their 2020 flight levels. This is possible, necessary, and fair. It is also good business.
Richard Gokrun, a former meteorologist, is Executive Director of Tuvalu Climate Action Network (TuCAN).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
Contributed by Richard Gokrun