Feb 2, 2021

IBM: A sustainable future calls for industry collaboration

Marina Rakhlin, Partnerships a...
4 min
Joining the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium gives IBM the chance to work with other industry leaders to define roadmaps to sustainability success
Joining the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium gives IBM the chance to work with other industry leaders to define roadmaps to sustainability succ...

IBM, along with a dozen other enterprises, including Apple, Boeing, Cargill, Dow, PepsiCo, Verizon and others have become the inaugural members of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC). Together our mission is to accelerate the large-scale, real-world implementation of solutions to address the threat of climate change. 

Cross-industry collaboration is key

Joining the MCSC gives us an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with other industry leaders to define industry roadmaps for achieving sustainability goals and identifying the scientific and technological solutions to execute on those commitments. 

IBM Research is embracing a model of cross-industry collaboration to tackle the complex and daunting problems posed by the changing climate. 

In combining our Future of Climate scientific agenda, the AI expertise across IBM Research including focused work within the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and the wealth of experience from our partners and clients, our participation in the MCSC will translate into valuable scientific contributions and industry solutions. 

Strong collaborations with commercial partners, academia, non-profits, and government are critical for prioritizing, validating, and piloting our innovations and enabling a fast path for scale and impact. 

IBM’s membership in the MCSC is yet another milestone in our commitment to lead with solutions that mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

IBM’s long-term commitment to climate action

Starting with the creation of the first cross-industry guidelines for voluntary corporate environmental reporting back in the early 1990s to our support for the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 to our most recent membership on the Climate Leadership Council, our dedication to environmental sustainability has been unwavering for decades.

This past year IBM Research launched a new global initiative called the Future of Climate, with researchers across our worldwide labs focused on developing and demonstrating innovations to enable sustainable hybrid cloud, climate-smart AI platforms, and accelerated materials discovery for carbon capture. 

  • Developing sustainable innovations - As the leading hybrid cloud platform company, IBM is uniquely positioned to proactively address the challenge that datacenter energy consumption is expected to grow to more than 10% of the world’s electricity use by 2030. A sustainable hybrid cloud solution is one that enables clients to measure, visualize, and optimize the carbon footprint of their workloads running in the hybrid cloud. IBM Research is innovating on technologies that enable coordinated placement of containers to optimize energy efficiency and dynamic scheduling based on the availability of renewable energy. In 2020, IBM received 3,000 patents in the cloud area alone, marking our 28th year of patent leadership
  • Climate-clever AI platforms - Climate-smart AI platforms are essential to enable carbon responsibility and business resiliency. As extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, businesses must understand risks, anticipate impacts, and optimize operations. AI-powered platforms for carbon footprint accounting and climate-aware supply chain optimization all require innovations for accurate impact modelling and prediction.

    For instance, sophisticated queries of massive geospatial data reveal societal and environmental impact of COVID-19, showing the significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of regional lockdowns in the spring of 2020.

    Physics-informed AI now enables us to build AI models that learn the physical laws of a system which can be directly applied to climate. In recent work, we have shown that integrating physics with neural network models can create robust, explainable models that aid in anticipating and reducing climate impacts.

    We have also trained AI models on physics-based simulated data to generate high-fidelity snapshots of the climate system and build an AI surrogate model of a complex dynamical system – in essence, fast and accurate approximations of computationally-intensive simulators.
  • Innovating carbon capture materials - Another pressing challenge is to design materials that capture carbon dioxide (CO2) at its emission source, since continued greenhouse gas emissions exacerbate climate change. On average, it takes at least 10 years to discover a new material and bring it to market, but we simply can’t wait a decade for new materials for carbon capture to tackle the climate crisis.

    Thankfully, we can now combine artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and hybrid cloud to accelerate discovery. By applying deep search, AI- and quantum- enriched simulation, generative models, and cloud-based AI-driven autonomous labs, we are super-charging the scientific method to accelerate the discovery of new materials, including complex polymers and materials for carbon CO2 capture and separation. In only a few short months the team has already synthesized a prototype membrane for CO2 capture from flue gas.

Solomon Assefa, VP, IBM Research Africa & Emerging Market Solutions and Marina Rakhlin, Partnerships and Strategy, Furture of Climate at IBM, both lead the Future of Climate strategy for IBM Research.

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Jun 4, 2021

Charting the rise of the chief sustainability officer

Kate Birch
4 min
Fortune 500 companies hired more chief sustainability officers in 2020 than in the previous three years combined. Business Chief charts the rise of the CSO

There has been a dramatic increase in the hiring of the chief sustainability officer (CSO) role among Fortune 500 companies, with demand for CSOs growing 228% in corporate America over the last decade, according to the latest report from CSO recruitment firm the Weinreb Group.

There were more first-time CSOs recruited by Fortune 500 companies in 2020 than the previous three years combined, with numbers of CSOs in corporate America soaring from just 29 in 2011 to 95 today, demonstrating the importance corporations are placing not just on reducing their environmental impacts, but also in supporting issues of social justice.

Businesses are increasingly under pressure to assume more responsible practices with customers, regulators and investors demanding increased transparency of business ESG performance.

And the past year in particular has been seen great upheaval, with increased new attention brought to “social justice, climate change, and an ever-widening political divide”, according to Ellen Weinreb, founder and CEO of the Weinreb Group, which has tracked the rising role of CSOs over the past decade.

CSO role is expanding and shifting

But it’s not just the number of CSOs that have changed, sustainability teams are getting bigger, with the average team size increasing from five professionals in 2011 to 15 today, according to the report. 

This is in part due to the fact that the CSO role has expanded beyond simply ‘sustainability’ to incorporate social justice too. Sustainability isn’t exclusively about the environment anymore. The role has also come to incorporate social justice, especially with the rapid growth of, and increased attention on, environmental, social, and governance, or ESG.

And many roles recently have been renamed as such with Head of ESG or ESG Officer becoming increasingly prominent.

Women make up over half of CSO roles

What's also changed over the last decade is the percentage of women holding the title of Chief Sustainability Officer.

A decade ago, in 2011, the majority of CSO roles were held by men (72%), with just 10 of the 29 then CSO roles held by women. A decade on, in 2021, the percentage of women in CSO roles has almost doubled, now accounting for more than half (54%) of CSO positions.

However, according to the report ‘The Chief Sustainability Officer 10 Years Later’, despite the movement toward gender balance within the role and its expanded focus on social justice, in particular, in 2021 the CSO position remains overwhelmingly ‘white’.

Probably not surprising considering there are just three black CEOs at Fortune 500 firms.

How the chief sustainability officer role has grown

The first-ever named chief sustainability officer in a US publicly traded company was Linda Fisher for Dupont, who joined the chemical giant in 2004 as CSO, just at the time when innovative companies were looking at sustainability as a driver for business growth. Joining from the Environmental Protection Agency where she spent 13 years, Fisher was a corporate sustainability trailblazer, spending more than a decade as CSO here, and leading DuPont’s efforts to establish its first set of market-facing sustainability goals.

By 2006, a slew of firms had joined the CSO movement, including Mastercard, Nissan and Microsoft; and Kellogg’s became the first firm to replace a CSO with Dianne Holdorf taking over from Celeste Clarke. And by 2011, a decade ago, Coca-Cola, Verizon, AT&T and P&G had appointed their first CSOs.

In fact, it was in 2011 when Virginie Helias invented her idea of the perfect CSO job – to make sustainable consumption not only possible, but ‘irresistible’ – and pitched it P&G’s then CEO. A decade later, in 2021, and Helias is still in the job she first created.

The majority of CSOs have been internal hires, such as Peter Graf of SAP, who joined the software giant in 1996, and served as EVP for Marketing before being named CSO in 2009. The same is true at UPS, whose first-ever CSO, Scott Wicker, started at the package delivery giant 34 years before being named CSO in 2011. Increasingly, however, external hires are being made with organisations increasingly searching for more high-profile leading voices in the ESG forum.

In February 2021, JP Morgan hired former British high-profile Labour politician Chuka Umunna while just last month hotel chain Accor hired high-profile French politician Brune Poirson, who has previously championed the anti-waste law within the French government and was secretary of state for the environmental transition for three years.  


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