How Microsoft harvests carbon offsets to save forests

This evening I’m participating in a discussion at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club with thought leaders from various industries to explore the environmental and economic impacts of deforestation.

Deforestation represents a large environmental issue: it is the source of 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Each year, 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere as 35 million acres of forest are destroyed through slash and burn agriculture, logging and charcoal production. The impact is economic as well as environmental.

As part of tonight’s conversation, we will be discussing the role of corporations in supporting conservation at scale as a way to offset carbon pollution. This is a commitment that more and more companies are making each year as part of their global environmental stewardship efforts to reduce the impact of their operations and help mitigate climate change.

How can corporations help? As they work to reduce the impact of their operations on the planet, many corporations are turning to carbon offsets as a tool to reduce their unavoidable carbon liability. Carbon offset projects that support forest conservation not only offset emissions but also enable economic development and sustainability. This approach can be particularly attractive for businesses and community development. Corporations can have a meaningful impact both locally and globally.

At Microsoft, carbon offsets are an important component of our sustainability plan, which is based on a strategy of “being lean” by reducing energy use and air travel; “being green” by making more environmentally responsible choices with our energy, waste and water; and “being accountable” by quantifying our carbon impact and holding internal groups responsible.

In 2012 we made a pledge to be carbon neutral as a company. One way we stay accountable is through an internal carbon fee model that charges teams across the company for emissions related to their energy consumption and business travel. The fees collected by this model go into a fund used to support internal efficiency and green energy purchases such as the 110-megawatt Keechi wind project in Texas. In addition, we invest in carbon offset projects through the CarbonNeutral Company to offset our unavoidable emissions, supporting conservation and helping emerging nations accelerate their transition to a low-carbon economy.

To date, Microsoft has purchased credits from 20 projects (on four continents), seven of which are forest conservation, avoided deforestation and reforestation projects. The range of project types that we invest in will help reduce threats to forests worldwide from illegal logging, unsustainable agriculture, charcoal production, palm oil conversion and encroachment of roads and settlements.

The impact to local ecosystems is clear; the four most recent forestry projects in the portfolio have planted more than 6 million trees, with more than 180 species in projects areas classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. These projects will protect or rehabilitate a total area of nearly 2,500 square miles, roughly the size of Delaware.

We’ve learned that people living in and around the forests are stewards of those environments. To achieve the behavior change required to protect a forest’s ecosystem, it is essential to understand the relationship of the surrounding community with the forest and the role the forest plays in their lives. We’ve seen how forest conservation projects, such as those we support from Wildlife Works, deliver significant environmental and social benefits to impoverished geographies in desperate need of change. For instance, through the Wildlife Works project, communities of more than 100,000 people are supported through activities including improved jobs and education.

Most communities do not choose to cut down trees when given a choice – especially when they realize that the trees are worth more standing. By putting a price on carbon and investing in carbon offsets to reduce their carbon footprint, businesses directly contribute to efforts to reduce deforestation and support local communities, all while doing their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

If you’re in the San Francisco area tonight and want to hear more about this issue, I encourage you to come to the “Forest Wars” event that begins at 6 p.m. PT. It’s my hope that we can begin a healthy discussion within the business community about how carbon pricing can direct financial resources toward these projects to help ensure ongoing preservation and sustainable economic development.

Amazon image by CIFOR via Flickr