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Op-Ed: How Big Tech can save money and fight climate change at the same time

An airplane takes off over a plane on the runway.
Half of all aviation emissions come from just 1% of the global population, and most of the frequent flyers are businesspeople.

(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Last year, Microsoft announced that it would be carbon-negative by 2030. “If we don’t curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic,” the company said. Microsoft deserves credit for publicly discussing the climate crisis, being transparent about its own greenhouse gas emissions and at least having some sort of plan to reduce them.

But the fact is, Microsoft is one of the top 10 corporate buyers of commercial flights in the United States. In 2019, its business travel alone accounted for 392,557 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s far more than my entire country emits in a year. Tuvalu, a low-lying island nation in the South Pacific, is well known for its vulnerability to the effects of climate change and sea level rise. We contribute almost nothing to global emissions, but their consequences affect us even daily.

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 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 10 largest buyers of corporate air travel in the U.S. 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.

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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 know enough to use video calls, rather than shuttle employees around the planet on airlines that before the pandemic burned 7 million to 8 million barrels of oil per day.

In May 2020, research 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. Half of all aviation emissions come from just 1% of the global population, and according to the International Air Transport Assn., most of the frequent flyers are businesspeople.

The wealthiest 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 need to recognize their responsibility to climate-vulnerable people, who 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 flying 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 in mind, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, 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 very likely claim that they have been trying to reduce emissions, but their actions are inadequate to the climate crisis. 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 doing so 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 sold based on the protection of forest areas that were never at risk of being cut down. Under this kind of scheme, neither airlines nor their biggest corporate customers can really claim that their flights are “carbon neutral.”

Microsoft and other big technology companies must commit to remain permanently at their 2020 flight levels. This is possible and necessary — and it is also good business.

Richard Gokrun, a former meteorologist, is executive director of Tuvalu Climate Action Network.


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