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‘It’s critical’: can Microsoft make good on its climate ambitions? | Environment

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When the UN’s landmark climate report was released in 2018, calling for urgent and unprecedented changes, Microsoft executives were told to “commit it to memory”, said Elizabeth Willmott, who leads the company’s carbon program. “And so we did.”

The report warned the world must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to avert catastrophic climate change. To achieve this, not only must the emissions released by countries and companies be dramatically curtailed, but billions of tons of carbon dioxide must be sucked out of the atmosphere.

These findings directly informed Microsoft’s climate policy, said Willmott. In January 2020, the company announced that it would be carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 it would have removed from the atmosphere all the carbon it has emitted since it was founded in 1975. By making this pledge, the company joined a small group of businesses, including Ikea and the software company Intuit, committed to going further than net-zero.

Microsoft is often ranked as a leading business on climate action. Its policies – from making it easier for people to repair their devices to launching software to help companies measure and manage carbon emissions – have been praised for going beyond the company’s own operations to the footprint of its suppliers and customers.

“Being a large, well-known brand, and putting a stake in the ground, talking publicly for years about the importance of climate change, is really critical,” said Simon Fischweicher, head of corporations and supply chains for the environmental non-profit CDP North America.

President of Microsoft Brad Smith as the company announced its carbon negative plan at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, on January 16, 2020.
President of Microsoft Brad Smith as the company announced its carbon negative plan at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, on January 16, 2020. Photograph: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

However, Microsoft has also been criticized for actions that appear to contradict its bold rhetoric on climate, including membership of trade associations that lobby against climate legislation, contracts with oil and gas firms and donations to politicians who obstruct climate policy.

These connections make it “complicit” in efforts to push against climate action, said Bill Weihl, a former sustainability executive at Google and Facebook and the founder of the advocacy group ClimateVoice.

Scaling up goals

Microsoft has been operating as a carbon-neutral company for nearly a decade, a feat it has achieved through buying carbon offsets as well as securing renewable power directly from clean energy companies and installing onsite renewable energy, such as solar panels at its offices.

Since 2012, Microsoft has also implemented an internal carbon fee, currently set at $15 a metric ton, making business units pay for emissions related to their operations and electricity, as well as from business air travel.

“The money gets collected and spent,” said Willmott, whose carbon management team uses the money to fund initiatives such as buying clean energy and carbon offsets. “I have to pinch myself regularly because that was something we dreamed about and didn’t think was actually going to happen.”

It’s a “powerful mechanism”, says Fischweicher, to push a company to think more deeply about the impact of its activities: “To pay a fee, you start to think about: ‘What can I do to reduce that so I have more money in my budget?’”

But the company has recognized that much more is required to tackle the climate crisis and the plan to go carbon negative was a big step up in ambitions.

Microsoft has laid out milestones for reaching the target. By 2025, it aims to reduce the emissions from its direct operations to “near zero” through gains in energy efficiency and using 100% renewable energy. By 2030, it has committed to reducing by at least 50% its direct emissions and those from its supply chain.

The company’s supply chain – more than 58,000 suppliers provide everything from office furniture to the metals and plastics used in its products – makes up the bulk of its emissions. Last year, the company implemented a carbon reporting requirement for suppliers and it extended the internal carbon fee to cover supply chain emissions.

But in order to remove more emissions than it produces, the company will rely heavily on carbon removal projects. These include nature-based initiatives such as funding reforestation projects, but the company is also pinning its hopes on technology. Microsoft is investing $1bn to support emerging technology that can reduce, capture and remove carbon from the air.

As part of this, the company has invested in and purchased carbon removal from Climeworks, which operates the world’s largest direct air capture plant, in Iceland, removing CO2 from the air and trapping it in rock underground.

Climeworks direct air capture plant near Reykjavik, Iceland.
Climeworks direct air capture plant near Reykjavik, Iceland. Photograph: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images

In 2020, Microsoft removed 1.3m metric tons of carbon through a range of initiatives from nature based programs to carbon capture technology.

However, these projects face obstacles. Relying on forests and soil to trap endless amounts of carbon is increasingly difficult in the face of worsening wildfires, pests and changes in land use. And carbon removal technology is not anywhere near the scale needed. There are 19 direct air capture (DAC) plants in operation globally, capturing just over 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. The International Energy Agency has estimated that reaching net zero by 2050 would require the world to scale up DAC to capture more than 85m tons each year by 2030 and around 980m tons a year by 2050.

It’s a challenge that Microsoft is grappling with. The number and type of projects currently available is “far short of what we need”, said Willmott. By 2030, the company estimates, it will need to remove 5m to 6m tons of carbon. This means the technology will need to be considerably scaled up to meet Microsoft’s demands alone, she said, “and that’s to say nothing of the fact that there’s a real spike in corporate demand”.

It’s not just the amount of viable carbon capture projects that’s lacking, Willmot said; there’s also a quality issue. The industry doesn’t fully distinguish between avoided emissions and those that are actually removed from the atmosphere, she said. More robust quality standards would go a long way to making sure “it’s not quite a wild, wild west that it is today”, Willmot said.

“[Microsoft is] opening up new conversations about historical emissions without having all the answers,” said Aoife Brophy, departmental research lecturer in innovation and enterprise at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. “Leaders on climate need to acknowledge the complexity of the problem and be transparent about the fact that there are not always clear solutions.”

Microsoft’s focus on historical emissions could also help spur a deeper conversation, she said, about “responsibility for the past, and may lead to much better ways to think about issues like climate justice that have not yet been adequately addressed by companies”.

A wider influence

The modern corporate sustainability movement requires companies to also consider their impacts on customers, peers and society more broadly. This shift in perspective, said Fischweicher, “is a really critical turning-point moment … because what you’re also talking about is shifting your business model overall”.

To Microsoft’s critics, this means the company should reconsider its work with oil companies. The same week that Microsoft made its carbon-negative announcement, it sponsored an oil conference in Saudi Arabia. A 2020 Greenpeace report digging into tech companies’ work with the oil and gas industry – such as providing software to support fossil fuel extraction – found that its contract with ExxonMobil “could lead to emissions greater than 20% of Microsoft’s annual carbon footprint”.

The company also spent about $200,000 during the 2020 US election cycle supporting politicians with a history of climate denial. And this October, Microsoft – along with other corporations – was criticized by the watchdog group Accountable.US for its membership of trade organizations with a history of fighting climate crisis legislation, including the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce. Most recently, these groups have lobbied against climate legislation included under Joe Biden’s reconciliation bill.

“I feel really strongly that we need to be able to work with everyone to make this transition to a low-carbon economy in the future,” said Willmott, responding to these criticisms. “I really think it’s important not to villainize any particular sector, or villainize any particular entities, but rather really work hard from within to shape the journey.”

Weihl, whose organization ClimateVoice is calling on Microsoft and others to devote one-fifth of their lobbying dollars to climate policy in 2021, remains skeptical. “Companies are putting their narrow self-interest ahead of actually addressing the climate crisis at scale,” he said. “Silence and unwillingness to publicly distance themselves [from these groups] is not neutrality, it’s complicity.”

Whether it’s Microsoft’s customers and affiliations or the type of work it does, experts agree the company’s size and political heft as well as its position within trade groups give it immense power – and it’s all about how the company chooses to use it.

“Tech companies shape how we engage with the world, and the information we see on a daily basis,” said Brophy. “We need to think of impact beyond measuring emissions and consider ways in which technology can be used to create change across different systems.”

Microsoft’s climate commitments are laudable, she said, but ultimately success will require collective action. “The biggest challenge is that Microsoft’s goals cannot be achieved by Microsoft alone,” said Brophy. “But that’s exactly what we need to see companies across industries doing more of: coming out and being bold, recognizing that they need to be systems leaders.”

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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Surface Duo 2 review: Microsoft’s dual-screen Android needs work | Microsoft

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Microsoft’s second attempt at its interesting dual-screen Android smartphone corrects some mistakes of the original, but falls short of a revolution due to a series of oddities created by its physical laptop-like form.

Looking more like a tiny convertible computer than a phone, the Surface Duo 2 starts at £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319), a lot for a regular smartphone but slightly cheaper than folding-screen rivals.

It opens like a book, with each half just 5.5mm thick, and a hinge that allows it to fold all the way over.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
There is no screen on the outside, but the time and some basic alerts for SMS and calls can be shown down the spine of the hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Inside are a pair of 90Hz OLED screens each measuring 5.8in on the diagonal. They can be used on their own or combined as one display measuring 8.3in – a similar size to an iPad mini. Both screens are covered in traditional scratch-resistant smartphone glass and have large, old-fashioned bezels top and bottom.

Having two separate displays rather than one that folds in half creates a major drawback: a gap in the middle of the screen big enough that you can see through it, which is much harder to ignore than the crease in the middle of a flexible display as found on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The gap between the screens sits right in the middle of the combined display, which makes full-screen reading, scrolling and watching video awkward. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You can use two different apps at the same time on the two screens. The theory is sound, but I found few pairings were useful beyond simple messaging apps and a browser. More useful was using one screen for a note-taking app and the other for a full keyboard like a mini laptop.

Some apps spanned across both displays, like Outlook, can put different information on each screen, such as your inbox on one side and an open message on the other. Some games, including Asphalt 9 and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass streaming service, put controls on one screen and the action on the other. But there are very few apps and games optimised for this setup.

microsoft surface duo 2 review
The two screens can be folded into various configurations, including just a single display, both combined into one large display, propped up like a tent or open like a mini laptop. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Specifications

  • Screens: two 5.8in AMOLED 90Hz displays

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888

  • RAM: 8GB of RAM

  • Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB

  • Operating system: Android 11

  • Cameras: 12MP wide, 16MP ultra-wide, 12MP 2x telephoto; 12MP selfie

  • Connectivity: 5G, USB-C, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5.1 and location

  • Water resistance: IPX1 (dripping water)

  • Dimensions closed: 145.2 x 92.1 x 11.0mm

  • Dimensions open: 145.2 x 184.5 x 5.5mm

  • Weight: 284g

2021’s top Android chip

microsoft surface duo 2 review
It takes two hours 15 minutes to fully charge the Duo 2 hitting 50% in 45 minutes, using a 45W USB-C charger (not included), which is pretty slow compared to rivals. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has last year’s top Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 8GB of RAM, matching the performance of top-flight Android smartphones from 2021 and capable of running two apps running side-by-side without slowdown.

Battery life is more variable than a traditional phone. It lasts about 32 hours between charges, with both screens used for about four hours with a variety of messaging, browsing and work apps. It lasts about a third longer if you mostly use only one screen. That’s a considerably shorter battery life than a regular smartphone and behind the Z Fold 3.

Sustainability

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera sticks quite far out of the glass back stopping it from sitting flat on a desk. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Microsoft does not provide an expected lifespan for the Duo 2’s battery; those in similar devices typically maintain at least 80% of their original capacity for in excess of 500 full charge cycles. Microsoft charges an out-of-warranty service fee of £593.94 to repair devices and £568.44 to replace the battery. The previous generation Surface Duo scored only two out of 10 on iFixit’s repairability scale.

The phone contains no recycled materials, but Microsoft operates recycling schemes for old devices, publishes a company-wide sustainability report and a breakdown of each product’s environmental impact.

Android 11

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The single screen mode is hard to use one-handed and most Android apps and websites are designed for longer screens, not short and fat ones, so you end up having to do a lot more scrolling than you would on a regular phone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 runs Android 11 – not the latest Android 12 – and generally behaves like a standard Android smartphone or tablet with a few small additions that make it easier to use each screen separately. One of the best is the ability to drag the gesture bar at the bottom of an app to move it between screens or to drop it on to the gap between the screens to span it across both displays.

The software can be a bit unpredictable at times, such as opening the keyboard or text box of an app on another screen or hiding a second app from the screen when you try to type. But it is generally a fast and responsive experience given how unusual the device is.

The Duo 2 will receive three years of software updates from release, including monthly security patches, which is disappointingly at least a year short of what rivals, including Samsung and Apple, offer. Microsoft’s last planned update for the Duo 2 will be 21 October 2024.

Camera

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
Because the camera is on the back of the device, it would be blocked if you fold one of the screens over, meaning you have to shoot photos with both screens open – which is unwieldy. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Duo 2 has a triple camera on the back and a 12-megapixel selfie camera above the right-hand screen.

The rear main 12MP camera and 2x telephoto cameras are good, capable of producing detailed shots in a range of lighting conditions. The 16MP ultra-wide camera is reasonable, but a bit soft on detail and struggles with challenging scenes. The camera app has most of the features you’d expect, such as portrait mode, night mode and slow-mo video, and can shoot regular video at up to 4K at 60 frames a second.

The 12MP selfie camera is capable of shooting detailed photos even in middling light, and has access to the dedicated night mode when it gets dark.

Overall, the camera system on the Duo 2 is solid, but it can’t hold a candle to the best in the business.

Observations

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The camera lump on the back stops the device folding fully flat, creating a wedge shape when using one screen only. The shiny power button is also a fingerprint scanner, which was fairly fast and reliable. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
  • The Duo 2 supports Microsoft’s Slim Pen stylus, which can be magnetically stored and charged on the back of the device when not in use.

  • The stereo speakers are decently loud but a bit tinny, fine for watching YouTube videos.

  • The width of the device makes it a challenge to fit into smaller pockets.

Price

The Surface Duo 2 costs £1,349 ($1,499/A$2,319) with 128GB, £1,429 ($1,599/A$2,469) with 256GB or £1,589 ($1,799/A$2,769) with 512GB of storage.

For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 costs £1,599 and the Galaxy Z Flip 3 costs £949.

Verdict

The Surface Duo 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, but is still a very odd proposition that’s neither a good phone nor a good tablet.

The individual screens are short and stout, forcing lots of scrolling in apps when using it like a phone and making one-handed use very difficult. The gap at the hinge makes combining them into one big tablet screen awkward too.

Using two apps side-by-side works well, but few combinations proved useful or faster than just quick switching between two apps on one screen on a normal phone. There is more potential in apps like Outlook that provide a multi-pane view, but few apps or games are optimised for the dual-screen system.

Microsoft is only offering a disappointing three years of software and security updates from release for the Duo 2, too, losing it a star.

It is good to see Microsoft trying something different. But ultimately the Duo 2’s two screens are just not yet as good or useful as either a single phone screen or a bigger folding screen, making it an expensive halfway house.

Pros: two screens, two apps side-by-side, multiple modes, top performance, hardened glass screens, decent camera, head-turning design.

Cons: gap between screens, few optimised apps, average battery life, bulky camera lump, chunky in pocket, hard to use one-handed, no real water resistance, only three years of software updates from release.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 review
The outside of the device is smooth glass front and back with quality-feeling plastic edges and a metal hinge. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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VMware fixes buggy vSphere release – and Log4J, too • The Register

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VMware has restored availability of vSphere 7 Update, a release that it withdrew in late 2021 after driver dramas derailed deployments.

Paul Turner, Virtzilla’s veep for vSphere product management, told The Register that the source of the problem was Intel driver updates that arrived out of sync with VMware’s pre-release testing program. When users adopted the new drivers – one of which had been renamed – vSphere produced errors that meant virtual server fleet managers could not sustain high availability operations.

Turner said around 30,000 customers had adopted the release, of which around eight per cent encountered the issue. That collection of around 2,400 impacted users was enough for VMware to pull the release before the other 270,000 vSphere users hit trouble. That level of potential problems, Turner admitted, was considered a sufficient threshold to justify a do-over and the embarrassment of a pulled release.

VMware has since reviewed its testing program and procedures in the hope it will avoid a repeat of this error. Doing so, and repairing the release, meant a busier-than-usual holiday period for VMware developers. Turner said those who put in the extra hours will be compensated with extra time off in the future.

VMware also used the time needed to get the release ready to ensure that vSphere 7 U3 thoroughly addresses the Log4j bug. It took the opportunity to update to the latest version of the tool – which is free of the critical bug that allowed almost any code to execute without authorisation.

But VMware decided not to add anything new to vSphere while it addressed Log4j and sorted out the driver drama. Users will have to wait a few more months for another dose of VMware’s usual concoction of security updates and feature tweaks.

There’s more interesting stuff on the way, too. VMware has promised a full vSphere-as-a-Service offering is in the works, and the Project Capitola software-defined memory tech that will pool RAM across hosts. The company has also dropped hints that its plan to run its ESX hypervisor on SmartNICs is nearing release.

VMware has detailed the new/old release here and made downloads available here

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