Microsoft announced last year that it will be carbon-negative by 2030. “Science tells us that the results will be catastrophic if we do not reduce emissions and temperatures continue to rise,” the company wrote on its official blog. Microsoft deserves credit for publicly discussing the climate crisis, being open about its own greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, and at least attempting to reduce them.
The elephant in the room, however, is that Microsoft is one of the top ten corporate purchasers of commercial flights in the United States. Prior to the pandemic, the firm’s business travel alone accounted for 392,557 metric tons of GHG emissions in fiscal year 2019.
That is far more than my entire Pacific island nation emits in a single year. Tuvalu is well known for being particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We contribute almost nothing to global GHG emissions, but the consequences affect us monthly, if not daily.
Microsoft’s high level of corporate air travel is not a good look for a company that talks a lot about climate change, sustainability, and racial justice, especially one that has its own videoconferencing platform. Surely, a cutting-edge technology company that claims to be “reimagining virtual collaboration for the future of work” should practice what it preaches and turn on Microsoft Teams instead of flying.
However, Microsoft is far from an outlier among technology companies. Five of the top ten corporate air travel buyers in the United States are technology companies: Amazon Alphabet IBM Microsoft and Apple These digital behemoths, along with the major consulting firms, are also among the world’s top buyers of flights.
Although one might expect the large number of employees at these large, growing companies to fly to many meetings, there are plenty of even larger employers who fly less. Companies that promote technological innovation as the key to combating climate change should employ 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- more than India.
In May of last year, a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change discovered that the aviation halt accounted for 10% of the decrease in global emissions during COVID-19 lockdowns. Given that only 4% of the global population flew internationally in 2018, and that half of all aviation emissions come from just 1% of the global population, this disproportionate impact demonstrates not only how frequently the 1% fly, but also that flying is a function of privilege. According to the International Air Transport Association, many, if not the vast majority, of frequent flyers are business travelers.
Microsoft, which is so committed to business travel that it has its own priority check-in lane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, is 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—mostly people of color, the socially vulnerable, and residents of the Global South, including the Pacific—pay the most.
The relatively wealthy fliers must recognize their responsibility to those less fortunate, who deserve to live without fear of the effects of global warming. Climate-vulnerable people want to keep their homes and identities as citizens of their country. Climate-vulnerable people prefer to stay in their homes and maintain their identities as citizens of their country rather than being forced to relocate.
If concern for equality and climate justice aren’t enough to cure Big Tech’s corporate flight addiction, perhaps money will. During last year’s lockdowns, Amazon and other large technology firms’ profits skyrocketed, despite the fact that commercial flights were grounded for months.
As a result, chief financial officers and accountants are questioning whether the expense of business flights is justified. Employees can hold more meetings in a day using videoconferencing, and business travelers say the halt in air travel had no effect on their productivity or actually improved it.
With that question in mind, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists, and Microsoft customers recently launched JustUseTeams.com, urging Microsoft to take the lead and announce that it will permanently lock in all of its 2020 reduction in business flights. Once Microsoft demonstrates some leadership on this issue, the campaign will be expanded to include other technology companies. Any step that advances the goal of net-zero emissions while saving a company millions of dollars per year should be considered low-hanging fruit on the road to net-zero emissions.