Tech, data crucial to tackling climate change – GM, IBM’s sustainability software

KAREEM YUSUF is the general manager of sustainability software at IBM. In this interview with JOSEPHINE OKOJIE, he spoke about IBM’s recent research on climate change and the role technology and data can play in tackling the impact of climate change.

Can you tell us more about IBM’s recent research on how Africa can overcome the impact of Climate change?

IBM’s recent CEO study found that technology infrastructure and investment are among the most important challenges in the Middle East and Africa to adapt to climate change. That’s in line with what we see in other regions as well. New technologies and innovation are critical to tackling climate change. IBM has been present in Africa since the 1920s and we have had a long history of providing technologies that help organizations navigate and overcome emerging societal challenges while ensuring ROI and business resiliency. As climate change and sustainability are now among the top priorities facing organizations worldwide, this is no exception. Through IBM Research Africa, we have R&D labs at the forefront of computing technologies in two of the leading cities on the continent – Nairobi, Kenya and Johannesburg, South Africa. These facilities are actively engaging with Africa’s rich and diverse innovation ecosystem to jump-start new opportunities and solutions to help the continent and organizations address sustainability and climate change, amongst other challenges.

How can the world invent its way out of the impact of climate change?

There’s an adage that says that hardship breeds innovation. Emerging technologies are a critical tool in our arsenal for curbing the progression of climate change and managing its effects. At IBM, we are working closely with our clients and partners to accelerate sustainability progress by bringing together the right consulting expertise, innovative technologies, and ecosystem partners. IBM Research is a storied part of IBM’s history and continues to enable us to push the boundaries of science.

Technology has been an effective tool in deploying changes, what role would technology and data be playing in the fight against climate change on the continent?

Climate change is a pressing issue for organisations not only in Africa but around the world. From a technology perspective, it all centers on solving the data problem. When you think about this journey we are on with sustainability, IBM is focused on helping companies operationalise sustainability. How do we connect high-level sustainability goals to everyday operations? You have to understand what are you measuring, what’s your current state, what are you progressing against, and how are you benchmarking. A major focus of ours at IBM is supporting a data-driven approach to sustainability. How do you pull together the right ESG data, derive the right insights, and make the decisions you need to make with those insights, and embed that into operational systems – creating a feedback loop. Organisations of all types need to focus on activities that will help them optimise operations and costs while reducing emissions and waste. That means the actual actions you take to run your business, you can think of these as mechanisms for your sustainability goals and drive your progress that way.

This is the 27th edition of the COP events. As the technology partner to the COP27 event, how impactful would you say the COP conversations have been over the years?

This is IBM’s first year as a technology partner at COP, and we were honored to be a part of the crucial dialogues happening on the ground at the event, alongside many of the foremost government and industry leaders, policymakers, academia, and more. We were inspired by the magnitude of the conference, the scale of the panels and the quality of the conversations. We are hopeful that these discussions in Sharm El-Sheikh will have a strong impact on creating the momentum and changes needed to accelerate sustainability progress. Among all the conversations, it is clear the time for sustainability ambition is over, and we must urgently accelerate concrete actions toward addressing climate change. As technologists, we are excited about the important role that data and technology will play in this journey.

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Beyond financing climate actions – which is a huge impediment – what other things do African governments need to do to attain their NDCs?

For us, the answer is technology. IBM believes that the power of science, technology, and innovation will be a crucial part of tackling environmental issues. We also believe in the power of partnerships. Having the right partners helps understand what it’s needed for successful transitions. Both are key components for governments to meet their goals. The goal must be to co-create solutions and uncover new opportunities while finding cost efficiencies.

The Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) proposition is a critical discussion in the climate change conversations. How robust is the ESG conversation in Africa, especially in Nigeria?

Our CEO study found that, globally, four out of five CEOs expect sustainability and ESG investments to improve business results in the next five years. ESG is a foundational component in the success of leading organisations both globally and in Africa and should be integral to business strategies regardless of sector. As an example, there have been important discussions in Nigeria, as the country’s Energy Transition Plan lays out plans to limit the impact of climate change. Climate change is a global issue that affects us all – we need to make sure that every region, including Africa, has access to the necessary technology and innovation to turn that ambition into action.

What is climate crisis and are businesses crucial to solving it?

If we follow the United Nations’ definition, climate change is the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns that happen naturally but have been accelerated by human activities in the past couple of centuries. But if we take into account what we are experiencing and projections from the scientific community, we can also define the climate crisis as one of the biggest challenges of our generation. That’s why companies play a critical role as corporate citizens in becoming part of the solution. The primary way that businesses can play their part is by harnessing data to drive more efficient, resilient, and sustainable operations across their business. Establishing a strong data foundation and embedding sustainability decision-making into daily operations will help organizations in their sustainability journeys, moving from ambition to action.

Partnership with the business community is very critical to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How do you see the role of top executives in advancing the climate change cause?

Accelerating progress in the fight against climate change will take investment as well as co-creation, and partnerships between technology leaders and leaders in governments, businesses, and communities. Only by working together can we ensure sustainability solutions are useable and scalable across geographies, communities, and the people on the ground that will be using technologies to drive change. Business leaders have a role to play in advancing the climate change cause and there has never been a more vital moment for CEOs to embrace sustainability as a core aspect of their enterprises. Data from our CEO study found that more than 80 percent of CEOs have identified sustainability investments as drivers of better business results in the next five years.

What can Nigeria and Africa do to meet the Sustainable Development Goal – which everybody has access to clean sustainable energy by 2030?

The efforts to provide clean energy to all are challenges too big for one country or organisation to tackle alone. Partnerships underpinned by technology solutions are key to helping African countries meet the SDG goals including access to clean sustainable energy. Building a more sustainable organization requires strong partnerships. One example I can give you right now is the IBM Sustainability Accelerator. We just announced a new cohort of organisations that will work with us to scale clean energy projects. One of the projects is with the United Nations Development Programme. UNDP is working with IBM to increase access to sustainable, affordable, and reliable energy in African countries, focusing on those furthest left behind. The goal is to forecast electricity access to better guide policy and investment decisions, using UNDP’s technical knowledge and access to IBM technologies like AI and geospatial analytics, via the IBM Environmental Intelligence Suite.