photo by Thomas Hawk

In January, Bill Gates published an argument about solving climate change titled “Why We Need Innovation, Not Just Insulation”. As you may have guessed, Gates’ point is that energy efficiency alone will not achieve us the emissions cuts scientists say are necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Innovation, Gates says, is key to getting the bulk of emissions - those from transportation and electricity generation - down to zero.

And Gates received some flack for pitting innovation against energy efficiency and regulation in an either/or scenario, which favored the former over the latter. Gates’ controversial claim was that a focus on individual consumption, energy efficiency, renewable portfolios, and cap and trade is a distraction from solving the climate crisis.

Given the scope of the problem, combating climate change is going to require all of the above -- innovation, private and government sector investment, and regulation. Perhaps a more important question, then, given Gates' power and influence as the founder and current Board Chair of Microsoft, is whether he can influence the company to offer the innovative solutions needed to fight the climate crisis.

Is Gates putting his money where his mouth is?

We recently evaluated Microsoft on its climate leadership efforts and discovered that, even in the realm of innovation, Gates’ company has a way to go if it intends to meaningfully address climate change with technology. In fact, Microsoft receives only 31 points out of 100 on the latest version of the Cool IT Leaderboard.

While Bill Gates is outspoken on how to approach climate change, Microsoft has not demonstrated the same zeal as its founder. The company has only recently begun to  leverage its reach and core competencies towards achieving economy-wide greenhouse gas cuts. The company receives only 14 points out of 50 on the Leaderboard for its climate solutions case studies, which show how its digital music and software distribution result in lifecycle emissions reductions.

Microsoft’s Hohm energy management software is, ironically (given Gates’ statement), a tool that helps make your home more energy efficient.  Hohm provides a personalized home energy score, and helps you identify potential savings. And in March, Microsoft teamed up with Ford to apply the Hohm software to plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) ownership. Hohm will help PHEV owners charge their batteries efficiently and affordably, while contributing to better management of the impacts of vehicle charging on the electricity grid.

In his opinion piece, Gates also makes a case for government incentives. “To achieve the kinds of innovations that will be required I think a distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key," he says.
We couldn’t agree more. And, based on our Leaderboard evaluation, it is apparent that IT companies need to strengthen their policy positions, and throw their significant political weight behind advocacy that creates favorable market conditions for climate innovations.

Thus far, Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, has failed to articulate the urgent need for government policy to drive a clean energy transformation. By comparison, Microsoft’s competitor, Google, is the top scoring Leaderboard company on advocacy for the clear position taken by its CEO, Eric Schmidt, in support of political action to drive transformative investment in clean energy technologies.

If innovation and government encouragement are what IT pioneer, Gates, says will get us to zero emissions, shouldn’t an IT behemoth like Microsoft be demonstrating stronger leadership to get us there?

(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)