A faster, cheaper, more accurate journey to net zero with AI

Microsoft’s Laura-Marie Töpfer addresses AI as a net-zero transition enabler and how to leverage data to comply with the CSRD sustainability framework

Time is of the essence, finance is critical, and accuracy is key for achieving net zero in the timeframe set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. With such a high emphasis on corporations to reduce their climate action—with the most significant sway on whether the target is reached—a silver bullet would be ideal in turning the tide on emissions. 

While it’s no magical fix for the issues long embedded in business, artificial intelligence (AI) shows great promise as the type of technology that is likely to reshape the commercial environment, unlock new efficiencies and manage the latest technologies to electrify our global network of digital infrastructure. 

AI has the power to measure and manage some of the most critical, complex systems used by workforces, and cut implementation times and costs while encouraging accuracy. This can be achieved across a number of applications, which Laura-Marie (LM) Töpfer, Chief Sustainability Officer for Western Europe at Microsoft, explains. 

“Take, for example, the Finnish steelmaker Outokumpu, a global leader in stainless steel, that used data supported by artificial intelligence to minimise waste and reduce carbon emissions while lowering costs through increased efficiency in production and improving time needed to treat and process steel by 4%,” says Töpfer. “Core to this innovative solution was integrating data from across different factories, machines and value chains into one unified data platform that served as a basis for data-driven and agile decision making.  

“AI has numerous applications that can enhance efficiency, optimise business operations, and provide game-changing breakthroughs to sustainability bottlenecks. AI can help to expedite the integration of renewables onto electric grids, develop energy storage solutions, reduce food waste, foster the creation of high carbon absorbing materials, and enable accurate weather forecasting weeks or even months in advance of current capabilities.” 

In the world of Scope 3, though, it’s important not to discount the impacts of AI as a technology that demands higher computing power to function. Although this perhaps isn’t the high form of energy consumption on the agenda, truly net-zero emissions take into account all factors—AI must also comply. However, the CSO of the leading tech firm’s Western-European operations understands AI’s implications in the grand scheme of things, but the latest technologies can support driving down the overall percentage of carbon-emitting compute power. 

Currently, AI compute accounts for only a fraction of the electricity used by data centres, which collectively use about 1% of the global electricity supply. As the infrastructure needed to support AI expands, demand for resources such as energy and water will rise. History has shown us that innovation can curb that demand,” says Töpfer.

“At Microsoft, we are continuously researching and innovating to make our data centres and AI systems ever more energy- and- water efficient. We are also working with energy suppliers around the globe to procure clean energy in the grids where we operate. Since 2013, Microsoft has generated 19 GW of renewable energy. Now the reality is that procuring clean energy year-on-year alone is not enough. That’s why we announced that 100% of our electricity consumption, 100% of the time will be matched by zero carbon energy purchases.” 

So the footprint isn’t necessarily cause for concern. What is a major factor in decarbonisation is the response of businesses, governments, and society at large. 

“Right now we are at an inflection point in the journey to net zero,” says Töpfer. “We need government leaders, businesses, and civil society working together. We also need to use every tool at our disposal. This includes AI. 

“That’s why we forge new partnerships because we know collaboration drives progress. At COP28, we announced a partnership with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to create a new AI platform and global climate data hub to measure and analyse global progress in reducing emissions. This will enable UNFCCC and parties to the Paris Agreement to report and validate progress toward reducing carbon emissions.” 


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