We must ensure that COP26 is remembered as the place where words became action on climate change

By Clare Barclay, Chief Executive Officer, Microsoft UK

Glasgow provided the perfect backdrop for COP26. As a city that has reinvented itself multiple times through the years, from the textile industry in the 17th century, through to shipbuilding, de-industrialisation and regeneration. It’s always been a city ready to take on big challenges, a city that fuses together solutions for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Despite blueprints for action from many leaders, the disastrous impact of climate change is already being felt by many countries across the world. The science and research are clear on the issues we face, and the sheer scale of the task at hand can seem overwhelming. This was highlighted in a recent report by Goldsmiths, University of London and Microsoft that found organisations in the UK are set to miss the Government’s target for Net Zero carbon emissions.

However, despite these challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic. What I have seen this week at COP26 is an overwhelming desire for governments and organisations to focus on the issue, work together and commit skills, resources and funding to tackle the biggest challenge the planet and humans have ever faced.

I have been moved by the accounts and impact of climate-fuelled natural disasters in countries around the world, many of whom were represented at COP26. From flooding in Bangladesh, to devastating cyclones that have hit Fiji, Barbados and others over the past few years, the impact of climate change was palpable. I was moved by the plea of Surangel Whipps Jr, President of Palau, who travelled for four days to attend COP26, to underline the urgency of action for his people and for the communities of the Marshall Islands, whose homes could vanish within 50 years if nothing is done to tackle global warming.

Having spent time this week with government leaders and the CEOs of our customers and partners, the one consistent theme was recognition that those that can go faster and further should do so. Key to this progress will be the ability to measure. The road to positive climate action is paved with decisions and changes that may be difficult, but out of change comes opportunity – new technology, new skills, new markets. I am inspired by those leaders and others who advocate for collaborative action to change entire business ecosystems, because no single government or organisation has all the answers.

This was brought to life through seeing entrepreneurs, like Climeworks, who have created innovative and groundbreaking solutions to environmental issues. Their innovation captures carbon directly from the atmosphere and stores it safely. It can be used for synthetic fuels, greenhouse agriculture and carbonated beverages, or be permanently stored underground in volcanic rock using a mineralisation process, with the potential to remove carbon for up to 10,000 years!

Microsoft is a customer of, and an investor in, Climeworks’ first commercial-scale, fully-renewable carbon capture and mineralisation plant in Iceland.

We were proud to partner with the Earthshot Prize, which was established by the Royal Foundation, and I was inspired by the prize winners, including Climeworks. The prize aims to spark innovation around environmental issues, with solutions that bring about change. Takachar won a prize for developing a cheap and portable device that attaches to a tractor and converts crop residues into sellable bio-products like fuel and fertilizer. Coral Vita was also named a winner for creating an effective system for growing coral on land, which is then replanted in oceans to give new life to dying ecosystems. It is innovations like these that offer me hope for the future.

HRH The Duke of Cambridge, who launched The Earthshot Prize, speaks with Microsoft UK CEO Clare Barclay at COP26

Technology has a critical role to play in transforming how we live to reduce our carbon footprint and use of the Earth’s natural resources. Microsoft has made bold commitments on carbon, waste, water and biodiversity and announced that by 2050 we will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.

We are focused on supporting our customers and partners with services such as the Cloud for Sustainability, the Planetary Computer and the Emissions Impact Dashboard. These can help organisations launch effective sustainability plans – not just in their own operations but, critically, throughout their entire supply chains.

But technology on its own is not enough. We need more public and private partnerships, more investment, and the right people with the right skills to drive change.

I leave COP26 with a sense of urgency for action and a sense of optimism for how we can all partner together to accelerate the progress our planet really needs.

Clare Barclay speaks at COP26 on a panel called Net Zero and the SME Climate Opportunity – Hosted by NatWest (with Alison Rose, CEO NatWest, Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State, BEIS, Catherine Lewis La Torre, British Business Bank)