IBM’s sustainability policy spans over five decades. Which have been the major milestones in this time?
The green transition is not in any way new to IBM. Back in 1971, just five months after President Nixon created the US EPA and a year before the UN Stockholm Conference, our then CEO published IBM’s first formal corporate policy for environmental responsibility. Rigorous energy conservation began in the mid-1970s. In 1990 we appointed a dedicated corporate VP of environmental affairs (who today is called a chief sustainability officer). In 1997 we were the first major company to earn a global registration to ISO 14001. We ensure sustainability remains integrated into the core of our operations by the foundation of our Global Environmental Management System. This is crucial because it clearly identifies roles, responsibilities and creates accountability. It also makes sure that our environmental commitment outlasts changes in senior leadership and that we stay committed throughout short-term economic cycles and regardless of whether the topic is popular or not. Sustainability is popular today, but it has not always been front-page news.
How would you summarize IBM’s core pillars in terms of sustainability goals as of 2022?
What we strive for is transparency and authenticity. IBM publicly reports its global environmental performance, and has been doing so for 32 years without interruption. I can summarize our core pillars in three main priorities: 1. We comply with law and regulation everywhere in the world where we work. We never take the importance of compliance for granted. 2. We continually set aggressive voluntary goals across all relevant environmental domains. 3. We support our clients in their own environmental quest, with innovative and impactful solutions and technologies.
What portion of your R&D and innovation efforts are dedicated to climate protection and ESG?
Research is at the epicenter of our work. Part of IBM’s premiere private research operation consists of a team dedicated to the accelerated discovery of materials that can render carbon removal more efficient, with the aid of artificial intelligence, simulation and high-performance computing. We are witnessing a new industrial revolution in technology, with an abundance of data and a myriad of advanced information technology tools. Companies can now leverage their data in new ways with these contemporary tools to push environmental sustainability forward.
You are looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65% in 2025 compared to 2010 - does that include IBM’s supply chain and is there a net zero target in sight?
Let me first provide some context. IBM has been actively engaged on climate change for 30 years. We helped the US EPA launch Energy Star in 1992. IBM started disclosing CO2 emissions in 1994. We supported the Paris Agreement in 2015, and urged the US to remain a party to it in 2017. Today’s 65% GHG emissions reduction goal by 2025 is our fifth consecutive GHG goal. The first was created in 2000. This includes emissions associated with the electricity we consume at colocation data centers around the world. These are critical places where a supplier provides IBM with a building, HVAC, and energy. We must persuade those suppliers to provide IBM with more energy efficient buildings and clean sources of energy. We also require suppliers in emissions-intensive sectors to establish their own emissions reduction goals consistent with the UN IPCC’s science to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. We are on our third goal for the use of renewable energy, namely 75% by 2025, and 90% by 2030 (we are at 64% now). And yes, we do have a net zero goal for 2030 that’s focused on minimizing our operational emissions before turning to carbon removal for the residual.
I am not an advocate for checkbook environmentalism where we would use cash to purchase dubious offsets and claim leadership while carrying on too much business as usual. That would be an opaque representation of achievement. Tackling climate change requires that each of us innovate and adjust how we actually operate.
Sustainability is often perceived as a cost by the industry. Can you give us examples of solutions that help optimize operations while also helping the bottom line?
There is no question in my mind that sustainability is good for the bottom line. Someone once said ”if you think education is expensive, try ignorance”. That applies to environmental sustainability as well. For a specific example, our energy management software (TRIRIGA) integrates data from buildings’ energy management systems, analyzes it and alerts managers to any anomalies through a dashboard: lights on at 3 am, conference rooms getting both AC and heat at the same time, machines needing maintenance, and so on. Fixing that saves both money and emissions.
What is your vision for IBM’s future in sustainability, and priorities for the next two to three years?
We are working on multiple projects, from implementing 3,000 distinct conservation projects between now and 2025, to improving the average data center cooling efficiency by 20% by 2025. We also have many priorities regarding pollution prevention and waste management, as well as conservation and biodiversity. Since 2010, we have required our suppliers to maintain their own environmental management systems, set their own goals, and publicly disclose their progress.
With that said, if I am to cite one overarching priority, that is innovation for our clients and the world at large. All of us around the world have not done enough for the environment with the prolific data we collectively have and the most advanced information technologies ever. Technologies like analytics, machine learning, blockchain and the internet of things (IoT). We need to do much better at providing insightful information to decision makers, from governments to industry leaders and enable them to reach new heights in energy efficiency, biodiversity, as well as battling air and water pollution.
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