Microsoft’s Director of Environmental Sustainability Talks Green Initiatives, Copenhagen Summit

In the past, Microsoft has had a reputation for being slow moving in the areas of green technology and energy-saving innovation. However, in the last two years, the corporation seems to have turned the tide, stepping up to the sustainability plate and implementing a number of company-wide green initiatives.

First, it hired Rob Bernard as chief environmental strategist, a position created specifically for him. It began integrating power management capabilities into its products—the latest release of Windows 7 and Microsoft Hohm include new energy tracking and management features. Partnerships were formed with the Clinton Foundation, the Carbon Disclosure Project, and the European Environmental Agency. And, most recently, Microsoft sent a 12-person delegation, led by Bernard, to the COP15 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Microsoft’s director of environmental sustainability, Francois Ajenstat, has been with the company for nine years, working in various groups including Office and SQL Server. He moved to sustainability, a personal passion of his, 18 months ago. His job includes everything from working with product teams to reduce the harmful environmental impact of their customers to talking with governments and NGOs around the world about climate change, and working on Microsoft’s own commitment to going green.

On the last day of the conference, Friday, I spoke with Ajenstat about how the company was received in Copenhagen and what its current environmental strategy entails.

“A lot of people join Microsoft to change the world,” he said. “This is clearly an opportunity where I could go in and have a significant impact on the world by also helping change the company.”

Here are a few edited highlights from our conversation:

Xconomy: Microsoft has recently put much more emphasis on sustainable technology. Why now?

Francois Ajenstat: The way that I describe how things were originally is we had a lot of what I call “well intentioned chaos”—a lot different people within the company doing great work, but not necessarily a line to a broader vision or broader strategy. Sustainability has moved to the forefront of everybody’s minds, both in terms of our customers asking Microsoft how we can help, government talking to Microsoft, our employees looking for what the company was doing, shareholders. It was almost more of a whole mountain of requests coming from all directions. What we wanted to do was have a thoughtful approach that made sense based on what society needs and also based on the real capabilities that Microsoft can bring to the table.

X: What are the key components of Microsoft’s environmental strategy?

FA: There are really three parts to the strategy. The first one is to use IT to improve energy efficiency. The second is to accelerate research breakthroughs. And the third is about responsible environmental leadership. A number of different studies have shown that the IT industry represents about 2 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted. And you might say that 2 percent is not a big number, it’s roughly the same as the airline industry. So it’s a fairly big number that we have a responsibility to act upon and drive reductions in energy use in the industry that we’re a leader in. We think that IT can play a significant role in improving the energy efficiency in other industries—the other 98 percent as we like to call it—which would mean creating smarter buildings, or smarter transportation, smart grids, or even things like dematerialization—we convert something that’s physical to digital. A big part of reducing requires measurement or management. You’re really seeing energy efficiency and sustainability becoming a key design principle of how we think of building and delivering software to our customers.

The second pillar is around working with scientists to accelerate research, but also to help find a broader solution to climate change. We’re doing that through building tools with scientists to help them do research by providing modeling capabilities so we can better understand the impacts of climate change.

And then lastly, responsible environmental leadership. This is about our own operations and how Microsoft becomes a good steward or the environment. We have set a carbon reduction goal for the company—it’s a 30 percent reduction by 2012, based on 2007 levels. And that’s something that we’re really driving very deeply in the company, around reducing the energy use of our buildings, driving efficiency through our data centers, then reducing travel through the use of technology. It’s not necessarily how much money is applied to it, but how you’re changing your business practices to make sustainability a key part of the company. It really is something that permeates everything that we do.

X: What were the goals in Copenhagen, and how was the delegation received?

FA: Copenhagen was fantastic in a lot of different ways for Microsoft. The goal that we had was to demonstrate the potential that the IT industry has to help address energy and climate change challenges that the world faces—evangelizing what’s possible with technology. We had a presence in a number of different panels to debate different issues. We had a booth where we demonstrated to governments and policy makers what was possible through technology, and we had a number of different tools that we used there.

X: What was Rob Bernard’s experience like?

FA: He was just blown away. He thought it was actually a great event. It was amazing how people eyes lit up when they saw the tools that we were showing and what was possible, again, today, without necessarily replacing all the infrastructure that you have in a country to get the solution, but really using tools to help manage energy consumption at home to visualize the impact of environmental issues. People were blown away by both the breadth of what we were showing, but also the depth of the thinking that we have on adjusting this issue at scale.

X: How do smaller green-IT companies and partner organizations fit into your strategy?

FA: Microsoft can’t be the only one driving solutions. We need to bring our whole ecosystem together. There’s always going to be a role for partners within our strategy. And they’re part of our thinking and that approach. Partners are key to everything that we do.

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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