At the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27), held in Egypt the week of November 7, 2022, IBM announced the new members of its Sustainability Accelerator. This program, launched in February 2022, applies IBM technologies, such as hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence, and an ecosystem of experts. The goal is to empower non-profit and government organizations to accelerate and scale their efforts focused on populations vulnerable to environmental threats, including climate change, extreme weather, and pollution. The IBM Sustainability Accelerator is a two-year commitment focused on building all necessary skills to allow government and non-profit organizations to scale and accelerate their efforts. Each year, IBM will select new projects and organizations that use technology to help communities tackle sustainability issues worldwide.
Before launching this project phase, IBM conducted a successful pilot on sustainable agriculture, focusing on addressing vulnerabilities around agriculture, both for the livelihoods of the farmers and the environmental sustainability of the broader community. IBM partnered with three organizations on three distinct projects with digital solutions designed to be used by a non-technical person. For example, in India, Nature Conservancy India has two digital solutions that have been built and rolled out. One is a Tableau-based data management dashboard for monitoring crop residue burning. This is a practice that follows the harvest in many parts of the world, including in the United States and that is very detrimental to soil health, air quality, and ultimately to farms’ productivity. The amount of crop-stubble burning in India increased significantly during the pandemic, probably linked to a lack of workers who returned to their home states. In 2020, the government also introduced stricter laws for crop management but failed to provide tools and support for proper disposal driving many farmers to ignore the new requirements. Nature Conservancy India is rolling out various intervention efforts, such as subsidizing and making available mechanized farming equipment that reduces the need for crop burning. Farmers can access information on how to access those resources through a mobile app. After sustainable agriculture, the current cohort focused on clean energy. The five partners chosen by IBM display a wide range of geographical reach and a typology of partners from three new non-profits, a UN agency and a municipality. “This mix reflects the interest we have received from over 100 applicants who believe that this partnership leveraging IBM’s sustainability software portfolio and the methodology used with the sustainable agricultural partners will help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 7) and help in the larger global energy transition,” said Justina Nixon-Saintil, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and ESG at IBM.
According to the International Energy Agency, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, disruptions to global supply chains, and diversion of fiscal resources to keep food and fuel prices affordable have affected the progress toward ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy by 2030. SDG target 7.2 is defined as a substantial increase in the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Renewable energy has seen unprecedented growth over the past ten years and during the pandemic, it has proven more resilient than other parts of the energy sector. Despite progress, however, the share of renewables in total final energy consumption (TFEC) is still only 17 percent, not much higher than the previous decade—because TFEC has grown at the same rate as renewables. Unfortunately, the deployment levels of renewables are still quite far from those needed to meet SDG 7 and to achieve a meaningful decarbonization of the energy sector, and this is what this IBM initiative is hoping to help. IBM selected these organizations to become the clean energy cohort of the program. The selection process considered the applicant’s commitment to supporting communities that are especially vulnerable to environmental threats, its ability to increase access to affordable clean energy services, and its strategic focus and transparency on measurement and reporting, among others:
- 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 IBM’s artificial intelligence and geospatial analytics.
- Sustainable Energy for All: IBM is working with Sustainable Energy for All to build an intelligent model to project energy needs based on current and future human activity. This model will be designed to help to address key development challenges (e.g., lack of energy access and poor healthcare) and support the development of robust infrastructure planning, such as electrification plans.
- Net Zero Atlantic: Net Zero Atlantic is collaborating with IBM to create an interactive digital tool that will geospatially display the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of possible energy system futures for Nova Scotia. Ultimately, the goal is for Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia to leverage advanced modeling capabilities to inform their input into energy and development planning.
- Miyakojima City Government: The Miyakojima City Government is working with IBM to support the development of a renewable energy strategy, including a microgrid on Miyakojima Island, a remote community facing severe climate issues due to typhoons in Japan, to help their residents, who rely on a clean local environment for the tourist industry and agriculture.
- Environment Without Borders Foundation: Environment Without Borders Foundation’s collaboration with IBM will be aimed at developing a platform to forecast, track, and communicate clean energy usage options in Egypt. The goal is to enable resilient and sustainable infrastructure and operations for clean energy in Egypt, helping residents of remote villages for whom energy is currently both expensive and unreliable.
The power of these projects is that they can be scaled or, in some cases that they, act as demonstration sites. For instance, Sustainable Energy for All uses IBM machine learning and IBM Cloud technology and expertise to build and scale open-access datasets and an energy needs model using temporal and spatial data. Kenya and India are being explored as the first regions to pilot, but the number of regions these energy needs models can be designed for has no limit. IBM’s approach to providing support, tools and skills for these projects, setting them up to continue their work and scale to other locations for much longer than the two years of the company’s involvement, assures the positive impact can be maximized. Moreover, as many of these projects focus on vulnerable populations, they must be directly involved: “We make sure that the work in these communities is done in such a way that those voices are heard in all of the planning that they do. This is an important part of our modus operandi. We’re working with those organizations on the ground and catering to the community’s needs,” concluded Nixon-Saintil.
As I have pointed out many times before, desperate times calls for desperate measure, which in the case of sustainability means competitors are becoming partners and public and private sectors are working together. The fact that IBM’s sustainability accelerator received applications from non-profits, one of the few intergovernmental organizations and local government demonstrates the need but also the willingness to come together to achieve more and faster.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.