By Chris Lang
In January 2020, Microsoft announced a new climate initiative. The company’s press release was headlined, “Microsoft will be carbon negative by 2030”. It sounds great. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s climate initiative is greenwash, based on carbon removal, (a technology that Microsoft admits, “does not exist today”), and tree planting on a massive scale (which is a dangerous distraction from the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground).
Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to work with the oil industry.
Microsoft’s climate initiative includes a partnership with a startup company called Pachama. REDD-Monitor interviewed Diego Saez-Gil, CEO of Pachama, but he revealed little or nothing about what Microsoft had hired his firm to do.
We can’t disclose details of the partnership other than say that we are helping Microsoft source, validate and monitor forest conservation and restoration projects using our satellite and AI technologies.
Pachama sells carbon credits from existing forest projects in the USA and Brazil.
Does Pachama “work closely” with certifying organisations?
According to an article by Justin Catanoso on Mongabay,
Pachama works closely with four organizations that certify legitimate forest-based carbon offset projects: the American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, Verified Carbon Standard, and Gold Standard.
The logos of the four companies are on the front of Pachama’s website, with the note that, “The projects we source are certified complying with the best in class protocols and standards.”
REDD-Monitor wrote to each of these organisations to ask them to confirm whether they are in fact working closely with Pachama, and if so, what this work involves. I also asked whether the organisations had given Pachama permission to use their logo on its website.
Sarah Leugers, Director of Communications at the Gold Standard, told me she “had never heard about Pachama” before reading in Catanoso’s article. “We definitely do not ‘work closely’ with them,” she said, “though I checked with our Land Use Manager and he indicated that they have asked us to pilot their technology.”
“We have not granted access to use our logo. I will need to follow up with them on this,” Leugers added.
American Carbon Registry replied as follows:
ACR has had several discussions with Pachama about their LIDAR product and how their approach might be used as a tool to monitor forest carbon projects developed under ACR’s methodologies. They are working with a few project developers to test the product, but are not working directly with ACR. They do have an ACR account to purchase and retire credits for corporations.
Anna Thiel, Communications Manager at Verra (the company that runs the Verified Carbon Standard), told me that,
Much of Pachama’s work complements the work we do. Specifically, they provide monitoring services to some VCS projects through their use of satellite imagery, and this monitoring has helped demonstrate that carbon stocks are being maintained (or are not, as the case may be) in a cost-effective manner. Pachama’s application of satellite imagery has essentially served as a second audit layered upon the traditional audits that require on-the-ground site visits. Given the usefulness of this, we have we have been discussing with Pachama how their experience with a few VCS projects could be used across a greater number of projects to monitor carbon stocks more cost-effectively.
Regarding the use of the Verified Carbon Standard logo, Thiel said that,
Yes, we have given Pachama permission to use the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) logo. They help market Verified Carbon Units for the projects they monitor (with their technology) and as such are eligible to display the VCS logo.
The Climate Action Reserve did not reply to REDD-Monitor’s questions.
Will Microsoft stop buying carbon offsets in 2020?
In 2012, Microsoft started buying carbon credits, in part from REDD projects, to offset its emissions.
This graph from Microsoft’s press release shows how Microsoft started buying offsets in 2012, but that from 2020 these will be replaced by “carbon removal”. Carbon offsets are coloured on the graph as dark green and carbon removal is coloured light green. I’ve added vertical lines to mark the years 2012 and 2020 (click on the image for Microsoft’s original graph):
Microsoft’s press release is critical of the company’s attempt at being “carbon neutral” through offsetting:
While we at Microsoft have worked hard to be “carbon neutral” since 2012, our recent work has led us to conclude that this is an area where we’re far better served by humility than pride. And we believe this is true not only for ourselves, but for every business and organization on the planet.
So why has Microsoft now partnered with Pachama – a company that sells carbon offsets from existing forest projects?
According to the article on Mongabay, Pachama will sell carbon credits to Microsoft for US$15 each:
Microsoft, for example, will pay forest protection projects at the rate of $15 per ton of carbon stored — better than the current global average of about $10 a ton, but a price that will need to rise for greater participation, observers say. Pachama will collect payments from Microsoft and other investors, pay the forest project holder and retain a commission.
REDD-Monitor asked Pachama’s CEO Saez-Gil how much commission Pachama charges for its offsets. Saez-Gil didn’t reply.
In its press release, Microsoft states that,
Like most carbon-neutral companies, Microsoft has achieved carbon neutrality primarily by investing in offsets that primarily avoid emissions instead of removing carbon that has already been emitted. That’s why we’re shifting our focus. In short, neutral is not enough to address the world’s needs.
REDD-Monitor asked Saez-Gil why Microsoft hired Pachama, an offsetting firm, when it claims to be shifting its focus away from offsetting. “I can’t speak for Microsoft unfortunately,” Saez-Gil replied,
Some questions for Microsoft
I asked Microsoft to confirm that it would stop buying carbon credits in 2020. I asked Microsoft to confirm that it had partnered with Pachama, and if so to describe what Pachama has been hired to do. I asked when Microsoft would announce the partnership. I also asked why Microsoft was willing to pay Pachama US$15 for forest offsets, when according to Ecosystem Marketplace’s “State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2019” the average price was US$3.4 in 2017, and US$3.2 in 2018.
I wrote to Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer. Joppa passed me on to Jennifer Crider, a Senior Director at Microsoft’s Public Affairs Communications. Crider in turn passed me on to Microsoft’s Environmental Sustainability department.
Next, I got an email from Cameron Greenberg, who works for Microsoft’s PR firm, WE Worldwide. Greenberg thanked me for reaching out, and wrote that, “I’d love to learn a bit more about the story you’re working on; is there a number I can reach you at?”
I replied that my questions were pretty straightforward, and that knowing more about what I was planning to write about shouldn’t affect Microsoft’s answers to my questions.
Greenberg told me that,
Calling is part of our standard procedure with all inquiries. Getting a better sense of your audience, focus, deadline, etc. helps us manage time and frame responses more effectively. It’s also helpful to have more info generally as we’re thinking through future engagements.
A conversation with Microsoft’s PR firm
My conversation with Greenberg went something like this:
“Is there anything you can share about the general shape of the story?” Greenberg asked. “Like, if there are other companies you’re thinking about talking about, or if there’s a specific focus about Pachama you’re interested in? Anything you’re willing, or can share, would be helpful.”
I pointed out that it’s difficult to talk about something that I’ve not yet written. “Gotya,” Greenberg said. “OK, that’s helpful to know too.”
Things change, as you write them, I explained. “You find out new things, and it tends to veer off on a strange tangent.”
“I totally understand that,” Greenberg said.
I explained my interest in Microsoft’s graph showing that Microsoft will stop using carbon offsets in 2020. I said that Microsoft’s partnership with Pachama seems odd to me, because Pachama is an offset company.
“That’s super helpful,” Greenberg said. “Thank you for all that info. Background’s really useful just as we’re trying to send the questions to the right person and everything else. Cool.”
Greenberg asked me about my deadline. I gave him a week.
He told me he’d read the about page on REDD-Monitor and asked me for more information about REDD-Monitor, “in your own words, just so that I can hear it from the source”. I pretty much repeated what’s available on REDD-Monitor. “Cool,” Greenberg said.
He wanted to know REDD-Monitor’s position on REDD. “I don’t think REDD is a good way of addressing either climate change or deforestation,” I replied. “Cool,” Greenberg said. “That’s what I’d understood from the website, so I was just making sure.”
I pointed out that offsetting is fundamentally flawed, and that I’m very critical of offsetting. Greenberg said he didn’t want to go down the “rabbit hole” of carbon offsets.
“Are there any other companies you’re thinking about including in your article?” he asked. I said that I’d written to American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, Verified Carbon Standard, and Gold Standard to ask them how they’re working with Pachama. “Cool,” Greenberg said. “That’s helpful.”
Greenberg’s last question was about REDD-Monitor’s audience. “It’s mainly people who spend a lot of their time wrapping their heads around forests and climate change,” I replied.
“Great,” Greenberg said. “That’s all super helpful. Let me take this information back to the team and then we’ll circle back with the response.”
A week later, having heard nothing from Greenberg, I sent him a reminder. “I took the additional info from our call and sent it up the chain,” Greenberg wrote. “We recently reflagged it and I can circle back as soon as I hear.”
A couple of days later, I tried again.
“I was finally able to connect with the team,” Greenberg replied, “and we’d like to politely decline to respond on this one.”