Microsoft and Slalom help King County develop new app to make it easier to report noxious weeds

Noxious weeds can be identified and reported via the King County Connect app. (King County Images)

King County residents concerned about noxious weeds have a new gardening tool to turn to when it comes to eliminating invasive species — a mobile app that makes it easier to identify and report the precise location of such plants.

With technical assistance from Microsoft and Slalom Consulting, the new app called King County Connect eliminates a complicated reporting process in which the public was previously required to take a photo of a suspected noxious weed, match it through their own image search, submit a report on the King County website and estimate the location of where the photo was taken.

The free app streamlines the process by allowing residents to take a photo in the app, which will automatically geolocate the weed. The plant can then be matched to the county’s list of noxious plants and a report can be submitted directly from a mobile device, either anonymously or with user contact information.

Users can search a library of known noxious weeds, including photos, descriptions, impacts, and procedures to remove the weed. The County has a staff member from its noxious weed program available to answer questions, who can be reached through the app. Additionally, users can register for status updates in the app if they would like to be informed of the County’s actions to identify as well as status of removal.

Members of Slalom’s hackathon team, along with King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, left, King County CIO Tanya Hannah, fourth from left, and CTO Aaron Barak, fifth from left. (Photo courtesy of King County)

The project arose from an idea a King County team brought to a hackathon sponsored by Microsoft in partnership with Slalom.

“The case for using technology to report noxious weeds was so compelling that the three partners were committed to bringing the app to life,” Gretchen Peri, Slalom’s practice area director, public sector, told GeekWire. “The first step was to build the Azure environment for the King County Connect portal, where the noxious weed reporting capability would eventually live.”

Eight team members from Slalom and King County designed the user experience for the app. Peri said all three partners played a vital role building the reporting functionality and the library of noxious weeds maintained by the County. The entire process took several months and more than 15 people were involved.

Plans for future versions of the app will use artificial intelligence to automatically identify the weeds. Additional languages will also be incorporated.

The goal is to stop invasive plants from causing damage to the local environment. According to the County, noxious weeds injure humans and pets, degrade hiking trails and waterways, and devastate agriculture. If the top 23 invasive species were not managed for a single year, damages to Washington state’s environment could reach $1.3 billion dollars, the County said.

Examples of such weeds include:

  • Poison-hemlock
  • Garlic mustard
  • Spotted knapweed
  • Giant hogweed
  • Tansy ragwort
  • Bohemian knotweed

King County Executive Dow Constantine, along with representatives from Microsoft and Slalom, will be at Marymoor Park in Redmond, Wash., on Tuesday to demonstrate the app for media.

“King County has the strongest commitment to environmental stewardship in the country,” Constantine said in a news release tied to the event. “We are also the proud home of world-leading tech companies. We have combined those two strengths to design an easy-to-use app that will help our specially trained experts eradicate invasive plants that are harmful to people, wildlife, and habitat.”

Learn more about the County’s Noxious Weeds Program here.

University of Washington researchers use robots to unlock mysteries of massive holes in Antarctic ice

Instruments attached to seals collect data on conditions under the sea ice. (University of California Santa Cruz Photo / Dan Costa)

For years, giant holes in Antarctic sea ice have confounded scientists. But this week researchers from the University of Washington announced a breakthrough.

The mysterious phenomenon: Giant holes in the winter ice on Antarctica’s Weddell Sea sometimes form without explanation. In 2016 and 2017, two of these “polynyas” appeared. The second one was roughly the size of the Dominican Republic. Polynyas act as temporary habitats for Antarctic animals like penguins and seals.

What they learned: A new study led by the University of Washington and published in the journal “Nature” this week revealed a number of converging factors cause a polynya to form. Researchers found that hurricane-force winds surrounding Antarctica can cause sea ice on the surface to plunge down and warmer water from the depths to shoot upward. That water chills as it rises, making it denser than the water below. It sinks back down creating a cycle that results in a massive hole of liquid water at the surface despite temperatures far below freezing.

“Essentially it’s a flipping over of the entire ocean,” said UW oceanographer Earle Wilson, a co-author of the study.

The tech that made it possible: The oceanographers behind the study relied on the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project, which uses instruments drifting on currents to monitor conditions. They also collected data from the Argo ocean observing program in which robotic devices attached to elephant seals beam back data and images.

UW researchers Ethan Campbell (right) and Stephen Riser (second from left) with one of the instruments built at the UW to monitor conditions in the Southern Ocean. (UW photo / Dennis Wise)

A surprising twist: Scientists theorized that polynyas would become less frequent under climate change because the fresh water melting from glaciers makes the Southern Ocean’s surface layer less dense. This study contradicts that theory and suggests that the increasingly strong winds drawing closer the coast of Antarctica will actually cause more polynyas to form.

What it means for the planet: Increased polynyas could have consequences for major ocean currents because they circulate some of the deepest seawater. The deep contains carbon from life that could be released into the atmosphere when it reaches the surface, according to UW.

“A large carbon outgassing event could really whack the climate system if it happened multiple years in a row,” said Ethan Campbell, lead author of the study.

At Amazon’s re:Mars festival, Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. unveils campaign to clean up the planet

Robert Downey Jr., at right, is dwarfed by the pictures of his Iron Man character, Tony Stark, projected on a giant video screen at Amazon’s re:MARS conference. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAS VEGAS — Robert Downey Jr. has been saving the planet in Marvel movies for 11 years as a cinematic Iron Man. Now he wants to spend the next 11 years helping to save the planet for real.

At tonight’s opening session of Amazon’s re:MARS conference — focusing on the frontiers of Machine learning, Automation, Robotics and Space — Downey announced that he’s setting up a campaign called the Footprint Coalition to develop new technologies for environmental cleanup.

Downey said the seeds of the idea were planted about six weeks ago, just around the time when “Avengers: Endgame” was being released, while he was sitting around a table with “some super-smart, impressive, expert folks.”

“The following statement was made: Between robotics and technology, we could probably clean up the planet significantly, if not entirely, within a decade,” he said.

That goal dazzled him. Some of the potential allies he tried to enlist weren’t so impressed (“it was like I crapped in the kiddie pool,” he recalled), but Downey nevertheless decided to lay the groundwork for a high-profile campaign.

“It’s a kumbaya pipe dream, it’s a logistical clusterf–k, it’s an impossibility. Kinda like the movies,” he said. “So, to me, that’s kind of a turn-on.”

The timing seemed right: Downey said that he’s finished with the Iron Man character after “Endgame,” even though Marvel fans have started a petition to get him to return to the role.  Eleven years after the first Iron Man movie came out, the 54-year-old actor said he’s anxious to turn his attention to the real-life environmental challenge posed by plastic proliferation, pollution and climate change.

“I swear to God, and I’ll say this right here in front of everybody, I’m willing to spend the next 11 years making good on that statement, and I’ll repeat it: Between robotics and nanotechnology, we could probably clean up the planet significantly, if not entirely, within a decade,” Downey said.

He plans to spend the next 11 months laying the groundwork for the Footprint Alliance, including getting “actual smart people around me,” and put the campaign into action in April 2020.

“In 11 years, when I’m 65, if we make a noble dent in what I consider is a massive threat to our future, the mess we leave behind … I’m going to come back, and I’m going to throw the nuttiest retirement party you’ve ever seen, and all of you are invited,” Downey told the hundreds of attendees who thronged into the Las Vegas convention center ballroom.

Downey’s big announcement may have been short on specifics, but he’s already taken care of a couple of the details: The domain for the website has been registered, and an online newsletter signup form is ready to take names.

The environmental call to action was the most serious moment during a freewheeling keynote that also featured running gags involving Downey, fellow Hollywood actor Matt Damon (who indulged in “Martian”-themed repartee via a video link) and Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant (who was sassier than usual).

That blend of seriousness and sassiness is likely to carry through this week’s inaugural re:MARS conference — which is a spinoff of Amazon’s annual invitation-only MARS conference. Attendees from more than 40 countries have paid as much as $1,999 for a ticket.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is due to headline a session on Thursday, and other Amazon executives such as Jeff Wilke, CEO of Worldwide Consumer, will be speaking as well. But in his opening keynote, Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices and Services, emphasized that re:MARS isn’t just about the Seattle-based company.

“We have an incredibly diverse group of people here today,” he said. “Our attendees include astronauts, CEOs, artists, engineers, Ph.D.s, politicians, and of course, business leaders of all types. This is our inaugural event, and I’m amazed that we have thousands of participants. It’s way above our expectations.”

Among other highlights from tonight’s session:

  • Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert recapped his company’s work on robots, including Handle, an ostrich-like contraption that’s designed for carrying boxes around a warehouse; Atlas, a two-legged android that’s adroit enough to do handstands and backflips; and Spot, the creepy doglike robot that Raibert said is due to become commercially available within the next couple of months. Raibert and other Boston Dynamics roboticists put two Spot robots through their paces in a demonstration that required a bit of improvisation when one of the machines took a tumble.
  • Disney Imagineering’s Morgan Pope and Tony Dohi showed video clips about their work with animatronic stunt doubles that can basically be shot out of a cannon, turn flips in the air and land on target in a net. “When I was doing my Ph.D. program at Stanford, we would do all these really cool robots, and then it was always, inevitably, ‘Hey, this robot’s super cool, but what’s the business case?’ ” Pope said. “At Disney, that ‘super cool’ is the business case. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Amazon’s re:MARS conference runs through Friday. Stay tuned for GeekWire’s continuing coverage of the Las Vegas festival.

Seattle rolls out electric garbage trucks in pioneering transition away from fossil fuels

A Recology garbage truck in Washington. (Facebook Photo / Recology)

Seattle is transitioning its fleet of waste management vehicles away from fossil fuels, starting with the nation’s first full-sized, 100 percent electric garbage trucks.

The vehicles come from Recology, a sustainability-focused waste management company serving the West Coast. The first one will start service in Seattle this summer and the second will be introduced in 2020. That’s the year Seattle officials are targeting to transition the entire fleet of garbage trucks to renewable energy sources.

Seattle already has dozens of waste management trucks powered by renewable natural gas, a power source derived from decaying trash in landfills. The fleet also has 80 Recology trucks that are powered by a diesel derived from a variety of renewable sources including vegetable oil and animal tallow.

When the transition is complete, Seattle will have closed to 200 garbage trucks powered by renewable fuels, including electric and hybrid vehicles.

“This announcement underscores Seattle’s leadership in turning climate policy into action and serves as a blueprint for other cities across the U.S. to eliminate carbon emissions from this vital service,” said Jessica Finn, director of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, in a statement.

Seattle-area transportation leaders are also adopting electric buses and electric ferries.

Allen Coral Atlas adds spectacular satellite views of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

A wide-angle view shows the area of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef covered by the Allen Coral Atlas’ newly analyzed satellite imagery. (Allen Coral Atlas / Planet)

When you think of the crown jewels of the coral reefs, it’s hard not to think of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — and now those jewels are on full display in the Allen Coral Atlas, one of the scientific legacies left behind by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The atlas was unveiled just a couple of weeks after Allen’s death last October, following through on one of the late billionaire’s passions: preserving the world’s oceans. This month’s addition of satellite-based imagery covering 3,000 square kilometers of the central Great Barrier Reef, from Cairns to Cooktown, represents the largest expansion of the atlas to date.

The project drew upon expertise from the University of Queensland’s Remote Sensing Research Center in Australia, with support from the Allen Coral Atlas project’s other partners. Satellite images from the Planet Dove constellation were processed by Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science to produce data about bottom reflectance and depth.

That additional processing makes the Allen Coral Atlas much more than an album of pretty pictures. In the online database, you can click the buttons on the imagery to get a sense of the coral reef’s geomorphic makeup, and gain insights into the coral reef’s benthic habitat thanks to color-coded data overlays.

“This is the first demonstration of our regional scaling model – a methodology that allows our team to quickly map multiple, related reefs using a common set of algorithms,” Lauren Kickham, director of product management for Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., said in an emailed statement. “This will accelerate expansion of the atlas to global coverage within two years, giving coral scientists critical information they need to protect and restore the world’s reefs.”

A color-coded image shows the composition and habitat characteristics of Arlington Reef, off the coast of Australia near Cairns. (Allen Coral Atlas / Planet)

Like the Great Barrier Reef, the atlas is designed to change over time, reflecting how the corals cope with environmental threats from warming oceans and bleaching events, tropical cyclones, pollution and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish.

This month, a U.N. report warned that nearly 33 percent of reef-forming corals are threatened with extinction, and Vulcan Inc. intends for the Allen Coral Atlas to furnish the data needed to track the threat and identify strategies for preserving and restoring the reefs.

Thanks to the latest addition, 237 reefs are now viewable online. The next regional map is scheduled for release this summer — and as Vulcan’s Kickham said, the plan is to have all of the world’s coral reefs covered by the end of next year.

Zero in on the Great Barrier Reef with the Allen Coral Atlas’ online image viewer.

More than 7,600 Amazon employees demand action on climate change in advance of annual meeting

Amazon’s Seattle headquarters under construction to accommodate its growing workforce. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A record number of Amazon employees are pressuring the company to get serious about climate change.

More than 7,600 software engineers, managers, designers, and other Amazon workers have signed an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos and the Amazon board of directors asking the company to adopt a comprehensive climate change plan. For context, that’s 2,600 more employees than Amazon’s plans to hire at its new Nashville operations hub. It’s one of the biggest employee-driven environmental initiatives in history and comes at a time when in-demand tech workers have a lot of leverage over their employers.

“I don’t know of any other tech company, or really any other company, that this has happened,” said Emily Cunningham, an Amazon UX designer and organizer of the climate change initiative.

The employees want Amazon to adopt a shareholder resolution that would direct the company to prepare a report describing its plan to reduce fossil fuel dependence and prepare for disruptions caused by the climate crisis. The resolution will be up for a vote during the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Seattle on Wednesday.

Emily Cunningham, Amazon UX designer, is an organizer of the climate change initiative.

Cunningham is part of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an employee organization that has been pressuring Amazon to make environmental commitments in line with its competitors for the past few months. The group is planning a press conference outside the shareholder meeting.

In the proxy statement, Amazon’s board recommends shareholders vote down the resolution because of the environmental programs and commitments already underway at the company. In February, Amazon announced plans to publish its carbon footprint for the first time this year.

“The Board agrees that planning for potential disruptions posed by climate change and reducing company-wide dependence on fossil fuels are important,” the proxy statement says. “However, the Board believes that Amazon is already doing this, especially given our commitment to disclose our overall carbon footprint, along with related goals and programs.”

In addition to the shareholder resolution, the open letter that the employee group sent to Bezos asks Amazon to make the following commitments:

  • Cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050
  • Completely transition away from fossil fuels
  • End custom products built for fossil fuel companies
  • Reduce pollution in vulnerable communities
  • Lobby for environmental policies
  • Protect employees vulnerable to climate disruptions and extreme weather events.

There are 11 shareholder resolutions included in Amazon’s annual proxy statement, more than any other public company this year. The other resolutions focus on Amazon’s controversial facial recognition technology, salary transparency, and other equity issues.

Amazon’s carbon footprint is more complex than other big corporations because of its vast and varied business. But the two arms of the company with the biggest power needs — cloud services and package delivery — have competitors making bigger strides toward reducing their environmental impacts.

Google has been powering all offices and data centers with renewable energy since 2017. Microsoft reached 50 percent renewable energy in 2018 and plans to make it to 100 percent in the next decade. Apple reached that milestone last year.

Amazon’s biggest retail competitor, Walmart, is also pursuing sustainability objectives. By 2025, Walmart plans to power half of its operations with renewable energy. It has already reached 28 percent.

Wind farms are one of the ways Amazon says it’s reducing its environmental footprint. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

Amazon has announced several environmental programs amid pressure from employees and shareholders. The company plans to move to 100 percent renewable energy but hasn’t set a deadline to reach that goal. In February, Amazon pledged to get half of its package deliveries to a standard of net zero carbon by 2030 as part of a “Shipment Zero” initiative.

“That’s only for the shipment part of our business,” Cunningham said. “It doesn’t take into account the data centers through Amazon Web Services which are almost 50 percent fossil fuel-run.”

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment for this story but pointed to the company’s sustainability initiatives.

International Shareholders Services and Glass Lewis, the two largest advisers to institutional investors, recommended that Amazon shareholders approve the climate change resolution. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice celebrated the endorsements in a thread on Twitter.

Whether the resolution gains traction remains to be seen. Shareholder resolutions are non-binding and most of them do not get approved. But Cunningham is encouraged by the unprecedented level of support for the plan.

“Glass Lewis and ISS have sided with the 7,600 employees on the shareholder resolution,” she said. “I’m not sure what that exactly is going to look like but, regardless of the shareholder resolution, I feel like we’ve already won in many ways.”

Washington passes ‘strongest clean energy policy’ in nation with carbon neutrality mandate by 2030

Gov. Inslee shakes hands with supporters at an event kicking off is 2020 presidential campaign. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wants his state to become the green standard in the fight against climate change, and he just secured a big victory in pursuit of that goal.

On Wednesday, the state legislature passed Inslee’s clean energy bill, establishing some of the most ambitious environmental goals in the nation. It’s a big win for Inslee, who is running for president on a climate change platform.

The bill passed on the heels of Microsoft’s bold new climate change plan. Last week, the Redmond, Wash. company announced it will shift its data centers to 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade and 75 percent by 2023.

Washington’s other tech titan, Amazon, is under pressure unveil a comprehensive environmental plan of its own. In February, Amazon said it will share its carbon footprint for the first time later this year. The company aims to get half of its package deliveries to a standard of net zero carbon by 2030 but hasn’t given a timeline to reach that goal.

Here’s what Washington’s bill does: 

  • Requires utilities to stop using coal by 2025
  • Requires utilities to achieve 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2030, with 80 percent of power coming from sources that don’t produce emissions or are renewable. The other 20 percent can be offset by penalties (similar to a carbon tax) or vouchers that certify emissions were offset by other producers of clean energy. Another option is Energy Transformation Projects, such as electric car infrastructure.
  • Requires utilities to transition to 100 percent renewable and non-emitting sources by 2045
  • Sets new incentives for Washington utilities and requires them to factor the “social cost of carbon” into decision-making
  • Requires utilities to expand to underserved communities and report on progress
  • Establishes tax exemptions for clean energy projects that hire minorities and pay workers wages negotiated by unions

Learn more: Check out Vox’s explainer for a deep dive on the bill.

Earthrise Alliance aims to turn data from space into a resource for climate action

During her stint as NASA’ s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’ s Museum associated with Flight in 2011 for a NASA {Long term|Upcoming} Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter {or|and} Museum of Flight)

Former NASA Deputy {Manager|Officer|Supervisor|Boss|Owner} Lori Garver helped lead the particular charge for commercial space endeavors, and now she’ s leading the brand-new space campaign to address the particular climate change challenge.

Garver is the CEO of Earthrise Alliance , a philanthropic initiative that will {influence|power} space connections and satellite information get policymakers, educators and the {general public|open public|community} fired up about climate action.

She noted the connection {among|in between} observing Earth from space plus taking action on the environment {dates back|extends back} 50 years or so, to Apollo 8’ {h|t|s i9000|ersus} famous Earthrise photo in 1968 and the first Earth Day in 1970.

“ Investment in space {actions|routines} have driven scientific and technical advances that have transformed our knowledge of Earth’ s changing climate, ” Garver {stated|mentioned} in a news release . “ Earthrise Alliance was created to translate this particular knowledge into meaningful action and also to inform critical decision making that facilitates and sustains humanity on the world. ”

That {actions|activity|motion} includes pulling together satellite information from companies including Planet {and also|along with|in addition to} Maxar’ s DigitalGlobe subsidiary; dealing with partners including National Geographic plus Schmidt Futures ; and funding fellowships plus awards to support education and {general public|open public|community} engagement on climate issues.

Garver said she have been thinking seriously about such problems even during her tenure {because|since} NASA’ s No . 2 {recognized|established|standard|formal|public}, between 2009 and 2013. (She was also NASA’ s associate {manager|officer|supervisor|boss|owner} for policy and plans through 1998 to 2001. )

For decades, NASA has performed a leading role in gathering information to support the scientific view that will Earth’ s climate is quickly changing due to industrial carbon exhausts.

“ I believe within climate change. I’ ve {observed|noticed} the data. I’ ve been to Antarctica with the head of NSF [the National Science Foundation] during my time {in|from|with|on} NASA. It just couldn’ {to|capital t|big t} be clearer, ” Garver informed GeekWire. “ How could I not have to get doing everything I could to help {tackle|deal with} that? ”

Right after leaving NASA, Garver became the overall manager of the Air Line Pilots Association , and in 2016 she helped discovered the Brooke Owens Fellowship program for women in aerospace. But when {a few of|a number of|several of} her contacts from the space {local community|neighborhood} approached her about the Earthrise Connections concept, and asked whether {the girl was|the lady was} interested in taking on the TOP DOG role, Garver jumped at the {opportunity|possibility}.

“ That was a good aha moment for me, ” {the girl|the lady} said. ‘ It was a good changeover time for me … and I {stated|mentioned} yes. ”

{Some other|Additional|Various other} members on the leadership team consist of chief operating officer Cassie Shelter, who until recently was the mind of space programs for Seattle-based Vulcan Inc. and the Paul Gary the gadget guy. Allen Family Foundation; chief technologies officer Dan Hammer, former {White-colored|Whitened} House senior policy adviser; {portion|mess} physicist Edward Boyda, who will act as Earthrise Alliance’ s chief {medical|technological} officer; and Jason Kessler, previous project director of Mission Manage Earth and program executive {in|from|with|on} NASA.

Earthrise Connections unites the efforts of Objective Control Earth, which has been {an ally|a promoter} of the {Weather|Environment} Modeling Allance, or CLiMA ; and Earthrise Media , which is an Earth Genome task aimed at making satellite television imagery available for humanitarian and information reporting purposes. It’ s the philanthropic project of the Windward Fund as well as an initiative of Mountain Philanthropies .

Garver said she’ s pleased to see how many {businesses|companies|agencies|institutions} came together to forge the particular alliance. “ It’ s such as there’ s nothing but goodness, ” she said.

She’ s also pleased to be involved {inside a|within a|in the} space venture that’ s about Earth.

“ {The|Our} interest in space, my policy {jobs|opportunities|roles|placements}, my drive has been around what we can perform from space, ” she {stated|mentioned}. “ It’ s never already been about the rocket. … We really may not know as much about our {altering|transforming|modifying} planet, and how to help save ourselves, {not having|without needing|with out|with no need|excluding} made the advances we produced in commercial space. ”

Microsoft’s ambitious new environmental goals include shifting data centers to 70% renewable energy by 2023

Microsoft President Brad Smith speaks at Bloomberg’s Sustainable Business Summit last year. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Microsoft is amping up efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and be a global leader in the fight against climate change. On Monday the software giant unveiled sweeping new sustainability goals, including accelerating its timeline to move all data centers to renewable energy.

Microsoft plans to shift its data centers to 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade and 75 percent by 2023. The company reached 50 percent in early 2018. Microsoft will join the Climate Leadership Council and advocate for carbon pricing nationwide as part of the new sustainability push.

Microsoft is also launching a new initiative to encourage recycling of data center assets using AI and other technologies. Those data centers will be powered by 60 percent renewable energy by the end of 2019, according to the company.

The Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant will nearly double its “internal carbon tax” to $15 per metric ton as part of the effort. The company implemented the fee across all of its business units in 2012. It is based on projected carbon emissions from each part of the company — everything from carbon use in buildings to transportation.

“We wanted to encourage our own business units to make improvements to their own electrical efficiency and their own carbon efficiency,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said during the Bloomberg’s Sustainable Business Summit last year.

The tax produces about $30 million annually for a fund Microsoft uses to invest in energy improvements.

Image of trees with data and insights provided by Microsoft AI. (Microsoft Photo)

Sustainability was already an area of focus at Microsoft; the company has been working toward cutting operational carbon emissions 75 percent by 2030. In 2017, Microsoft struck a deal with Puget Sound Energy allowing the company to shift 80 percent of its energy use at its headquarters to renewable sources purchased wholesale from other providers.

But Microsoft President Brad Smith said “environmental changes have made it increasingly clear that we must do more” in a blog post Monday.

Microsoft partnered with PwC on a new study tied to Monday’s announcement that makes the economic case for applying artificial intelligence to environmental conservation.

“Time is too short, resources too thin and the impact too large to wait for all the answers to act,” Smith wrote. “There’s an incredible opportunity to be realized by acting, supported by data and technology, on climate change.”

Fellow Seattle-area tech giant Amazon also plans to move to 100 percent renewable energy but hasn’t set a deadline to reach that goal. In February, Amazon pledged to get half of its package deliveries to a standard of net zero carbon by 2030 as part of a “Shipment Zero” initiative. Earlier this month, Amazon announced three new wind farm deals to power its AWS data centers.

Amazon takes heat over climate change as employee activist group swells to more than 3,500

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

For months, Amazon employees have been agitating for a comprehensive environmental plan at the company and on Wednesday they reached a new milestone.

More than 3,500 workers have signed onto an open letter spearheaded by the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice organization. Those signatories included their full names and titles on the petition, a signal that thousands of Amazon employees are willing to publicly call out the company’s environmental practices. The signatures were gathered in less than 48 hours.

“Amazon’s leadership is urgently needed,” the letter says. “We’re a company that understands the importance of thinking big, taking ownership of hard problems, and earning trust.”

The petition asks Amazon to adopt a shareholder resolution calling for a company-wide climate change plan that would:

  • Cut Amazon’s carbon emissions in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050
  • Completely transition Amazon away from fossil fuels
  • End custom products built for fossil fuel companies
  • Reduce pollution in vulnerable communities
  • Lobby for policies to reduce climate change
  • Protect employees vulnerable to climate disruptions and extreme weather events

The letter was organized after several meetings with Amazon leadership that failed to reach an agreement that satisfied the employees.

The employees take particular issue with an initiative in which Amazon Web Services builds custom products to help fossil fuel companies in their oil discovery and extraction efforts.

“Partnering with fossil fuel companies demonstrates that climate is not a priority for Amazon leadership,” said Jamie Kowalski, an Amazon software developer, in a statement.

The petition builds on a shareholder resolution filed by Amazon employees in November urging the company to publish a report on its plan to reduce fossil fuel dependence.

“Earlier this year, we announced that we will share our company-wide carbon footprint, along with related goals and programs,” said Sam Kennedy, an Amazon spokesperson focused on the company’s sustainability efforts, in a statement to GeekWire.

Amazon plans to move to 100 percent renewable energy but hasn’t set a deadline to reach that goal as other tech companies have. In February, Amazon pledged to get half of its package deliveries to a standard of net zero carbon by 2030 as part of a “Shipment Zero” initiative. Last week, Amazon announced three new wind farm deals to power its AWS data centers.

Amazon’s environmental employee activists don’t think these steps go far enough.

“We have the power to shift entire industries, inspire global action on climate, and lead on the issue of our lifetimes,” the letter says. “We ask that you, as leaders responsible for our strategic direction, adopt the climate plan resolution and release a company-wide plan that incorporates the six principles above.”

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