It's been a busy three years for Rob Bernard as Microsoft's first chief environmental strategist. But being tasked with driving sustainable innovations at the world's biggest software firm – with unparalleled reach into homes, businesses, and governments – was never going involve much downtime.
Bernard is on a "flying visit" to London offices before heading to a European conference. But he's keen to stress that this means train travel where possible, and apologises for the bottled water on the table.
At a corporate level, Bernard has worked to make Microsoft more sustainable as a business. On the ground, his influence can be seen in everything from compostable cutlery and crockery to hybrid campus shuttles and free staff commuter buses at the 39,000-employee global headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
The company now gets 25% of its annual energy from renewable sources, travels 30% less and boasts more energy-efficient buildings.
"We've expanded the things that we take into consideration, like waste stream ... and we changed the auto [car] policy to address both fleet average and put a cap on the level of carbon per kilometre of any vehicle Microsoft purchases. We don't have water goals yet but we're looking at measuring it," Bernard says.
He oversaw the roll-out of Windows 7 in 2009, Microsoft's energy-saving operating system, and last year moved the company into home energymonitoring with Hohm, an online application that will later be used in conjunction with Ford to regulate the impact on the grid of mass electric vehicle charging.
He's excellerated Microsoft software for climate research, and provided the platform that allows the Carbon Disclosure Project to produce its annual study of emissions from 3,000 major global corporations – and will soon report those of the world's biggest cities.
Bernard has focused on making Microsoft's data centres more efficient.
"We're 50% more efficient than we were three years ago. I think we'll easily get to another 50% within another three years," he says.
Bernard acknowledges the IT industry needs to get much more energy efficient, particularly given the potential scale of its growth.
In 2008 a Smart 2020 report by the Climate Group on behalf of the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI) predicted ICT demand would quadruple alongside the rapid economic expansion of countries such as India and China. By 2020, it said, PC ownership will quadruple, mobile phone ownership will almost double and broadband uptake will treble. The sector's emissions are expected to increase from 0.53bn tonnes (Gt) carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2002 to 1.43 GtCO2e in 2020 under a business as usual scenario – nearly 3% of global emissions.
But the report also highlighted how the industry could become a key player in creating a low-carbon society.
"Specific ICT opportunities ... can lead to emission reductions five times the size of the sector's own footprint, or 15% of total business as usual emissions by 2020."
One opportunity identified in the report was cloud computing, where "clouds" of giant data centres around the world store digital data – documents, email, music, video, photos – that can be accessed from any device, anywhere, through a browser.
Last November, Microsoft commissioned a study which found that deploying its cloud computing solutions in large organisations could reduce energy use and carbon emissions by more than 30%, and more than 90% in smaller operations.
Lower carbon emissions are driven by the efficiency of large-scale data centres, which manage capacity according to demand, serve millions of users simultaneously on the same server infrastructure, and are housed in more energy-efficient buildings, the report said.
"If you shift things from physical goods to electrons, data centre footprint grows, but societal [society's] footprint goes down," Bernard says. "At Microsoft, our server capacity had to increase because we're doing more telephone conferencing and we're doing more video conferencing, but on a societal level, we've reduced travel."
In this respect, cloud computing is not all good news. Humans are generating more data than ever and our digital footprint requires huge amounts of server space and energy.
The Smart 2020 analysis forecasted that the global carbon footprint of the main components of cloud-based computing – data centres and the telecommunications network – would see their emissions grow, on average, 7% and 5% respectively each year between 2002-2020. During the same period, the number of data centre servers is expected to grow by an average of 9% each year.
A Greenpeace International report released in March last year calculated that electricity consumed by cloud computing globally will increase from 632bn kilowatt hours in 2007 to 1,963bn kWh by 2020 and the associated CO2 equivalent emissions would reach 1,034 megatonnes. With such huge amounts of energy required to power the gigantic computing facilities that serve up the web mail, online storage and internet services we use every day, the Greenpeace report called for Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others to be responsible in their choice of power sources.
"Will the cloud run on coal or renewable energy? We are calling on IT industry giants to put their might behind government policies that give priority grid access for renewable sources like wind and solar energy," Greenpeace said. "The great innovators of the digital age can and should be leaders in promoting an energy revolution."
Facebook is currently at the centre of a storm over plans to build its first company-owned data centre in Prineville, Oregon, that would get power from a local utility which generates 60% of its electricity by burning coal. Microsoft too, has been criticised for announcing plans for a data centre in the coal-heavy state of Virginia.
While its facility in Quincy, Washington uses 100% renewable hydropower from the Columbia river, Bernard maintains it's not always possible to make better energy choices but that supply is "definitely a factor" in the siting of data centres.
"It's very geospecific, because there are well over 30 factors that go into considering where to put a data centre. So in Washington state, there's lots of hydropower, and Quincy is literally three power poles away from the source. But you go to the east coast of the US, and it's still a highly coal-dependent infrastructure. So the question is how quickly can a country change its infrastructure? Or the regulatory regime?"
Microsoft has other large data centres in Chicago and San Antonio, Texas, and has tackled the carbon footprint with investment in more efficient heating and cooling systems. Its Dublin-based data centre, which opened in 2009, uses the local climate for a "free air" cooling system and all future centres must be designed according to LEED green building standards.
Bernard is also keen to expand "generation 4" data centres housed in portable structures the size of shipping containers. "What if you could make this literally standalone pods that don't need a building but just need physical security, and then you don't need to construct a massive building in concrete, with all the carbon implications and all the cost?"
Some NGOs have warned that Microsoft's shift to cloud computing will significantly increase its emissions profile, which has been traditionally low as it makes software, not hardware. Bernard and the CEO, Steve Ballmer, have also come under fire for adopting a carbon intensity – rather than an absolute – target. Bernard is sticking with the goal – to reduce carbon emissions per unit of revenue by at least 30% by 2012 (compared with 2007 levels) – and maintains it was created in line with contemporary thinking in the US surrounding GDP-based targets.
"Whether it's Greenpeace or the WWF, it's great that these guys are turning their attention to the ICT issue at scale. I respectfully see it very differently. If I look at the amount of support and activity we do and the breadth of it, we're focused on how we drive energy efficiency at scale both in IT and through the use of IT. If we can continue to drive radical energy efficiency gains in our industry, tripling the number of transactions per unit of electricity, that's a pretty good goal within a decade."