On Location: How Microsoft’s Carbon Fee is Empowering Communities in Africa
While climate change has become an increasingly critical and highly-discussed topic in first world nations, many developing nations are facing the most immediate impacts of extreme and changing weather patterns. These countries are facing severe challenges such as agricultural damage and displacement due to floods and widespread drought. As many living in these countries are highly dependent upon the land and forests for food and fuel, even small changes in climate conditions can imperil the livelihoods of these communities.
This summer, I was fortunate to see for myself how communities in Malawi and Madagascar are adapting and collaborating to build more sustainable livelihoods, not only enabling them to improve their food and financial security but also conserving the forests and biodiversity which are so crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
On the long flights, drives and skiff rides up the river to the remote locations in Malawi and Madagascar to visit projects that Microsoft invests in as part of our carbon offset portfolio, we saw thousands of acres of deforested landscapes. When we arrived at the forests protected through the projects, the contrast was stark and encouraging, clear evidence of the efforts to reduce deforestation. This experience emphasized for me how carbon offset projects do far more than minimize Microsoft’s carbon footprint – carbon finance can have a transformative effect on communities around the world and provide a pathway to a more sustainable future.
CONSIDER THE FOREST
These projects focus on addressing deforestation, which has a significant impact on climate change. Scientific American reports that up to a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and forest degradation. Forests are essential to absorbing and storing carbon, but as trees are burned, this carbon is released into the atmosphere. By most accounts, deforestation adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year than all the cars and trucks on the world’s roads.
The causes of deforestation vary from region to region, ranging from agribusiness to demand for wood products to the clearing of forests for subsistence farming. At the root, though, halting deforestation depends upon creating alternatives for earning income and providing food and fuel to local residents. This is where carbon finance comes in – through carbon offset projects, these communities are able to participate in programs that will create new income opportunities and reduce the need to cut down trees. .
On my arrival to Nkhota-kota in Malawi, the senior chief immediately asked me “how is the forest?” The forests are the heart of these projects, as on-the-ground organizations work with communities to work with the forests to create new, long-term sustainable livelihoods. For example, in Malawi, farmers have begun beekeeping as a new source of income and local people are trained as guides to support eco-tourism. In Madagascar, organizers have helped the communities to begin raising chickens as an alternative source of meat to reduce the need to hunt lemurs in the forests, and provide instruction on new rice-growing techniques to improve productivity.
During my trip it was clear to me that we are supporting a transformation in resource use that goes far beyond carbon. At the Kulera project in Malawi, I heard from many locals about how life had changed over the last few years with the funding from the project. They now have solar panels that deliver the energy needed for children to do their homework at night. They now have bicycles that provide a much faster alternative to the long distances that used to be travelled for days on end by foot. And with mobile phones, they can track and document the protection of the forest using photos and text messages in place of incomplete handwritten notes.
Microsoft is supporting this through not only our funding, but also through our technologies. In Madagascar, I asked one local villager how he had learned to speak English so well, and he explained that he had taught himself using a Microsoft Surface Pro PC that had been provided to his local school. He is currently studying environmental science at the Wildlife Conservation Society Environmental School, to take new techniques (such as how to grow cocoa and other crops more sustainably) back to local communities throughout the area.
The depth of this transformation became clear to me during an event in Malawi. Four men turned the guns that they had previously used for poaching in to the village chief during a day-long conservation festival with songs, theatre, dances, and celebration. The chief has transformed the community’s culture from one of extraction to one of conservation. Poaching was no longer acceptable, and the village’s participation in the project had created viable alternatives. This was a powerful indicator of the success of the project in enabling new ways of life that support the conservation of forests and wildlife.
WHY WE INVEST
The Microsoft carbon fee program currently supports 12 forestry projects in 10 countries. Our forestry projects vary from reforestation to sustainable forest management to forest conservation.
These projects are part of our global portfolio of carbon offset projects, totaling 44 projects in 25 countries. These include community projects around the world, such as clean cookstoves that are 50 percent more efficient and help to free up time for women to be more involved in income generating work, and several renewable energy projects, such as solar power and lighting and converting agricultural methane and biomass to energy. Our investments have helped to reduce emissions by more than 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (mtCO2e) and impacted more than 7 million people globally.
In a year expected to be the hottest year on record, it is increasingly clear that a global transformation is needed to keep warming to 2 degrees by 2100, the ambitious goal set in the Paris Agreements.
We don’t have all the answers, but Microsoft is working hard across our operations, with our partners and with local communities to do our part. Our carbon offset projects are just one way we think we can empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. These projects have a measurable and verifiable positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and they also empower communities to improve health, education, and food and financial security.
We carefully select the projects that we invest in based on those we feel will have the greatest impact and align most closely with our criteria (for example, they must be certified to a recognized credible standard and provide socioeconomic benefits). Furthermore, we increasingly prioritize alignment with the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs), helping ensure that our investments support a unified approach to carbon sequestration and broader community action. 
Our hope is that other like-minded businesses around the world will use carbon finance and choose to invest in carbon offset projects, particularly in developing countries. As I saw firsthand, the need exists and the scale of the opportunity is mind-boggling. These projects are changing lives locally while helping address the climate change challenge globally.
 The UN has established 17 SDGs, which include 169 individual targets to achieve by 2030. These goals are aimed at achieving long-term sustainable development, elimination of poverty, and an overall healthy planet. Designed with a bottom-up approach, they help focus government policy, programs, innovation, and spending. In addition, they help to highlight the need for private sector involvement and partnerships for achieving success.