Twenty years ago, IBM established the corporate goals of reducing its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 40% while expanding its use of electricity from renewable energy sources to 55% by the year 2025. However, the Armonk-headquartered company miscalculated its goals, albeit in a good way.
According to the 30th annual “IBM and the Environment Report,” the company’s CO2 emissions have been reduced by 39.5% over the last 15 years while its reliance on electricity from renewable sources increased by 47%. Wayne Balta, vice president of environmental affairs and product safety, reported that IBM used a triple-pronged strategy to reach its goals so rapidly.
“Either we use less energy to get the same job done or we contract for renewable electricity, because that electricity hasn’t involved CO2 emissions or the electricity that we routinely get from a grid has a lesser CO2 intensity to it,” he said. “Those are the three levers that one can pull. And what has worked for IBM has really been some combination of all three.”
Balta pointed out that IBM has been in the forefront of folding an environmental consideration into its corporate operations. In 1971, when the nation was placing a new priority on environmental protection, IBM Chairman and CEO Tom Watson Jr. oversaw the release of the company’s first published policy statement on environmental protection.
“And Watson said something extraordinarily important,” Balta recalled. “He said that line management and IBM must be continuously on guard against adversely affecting the environment. And he got it right. Because at that time, Watson pointed out that this isn’t just some staff role for people who tidy up. This is the responsibility of line management.”
During the early 1990s, IBM was among the co-founders in the creation of the Public Environmental Reporting Initiative Guidelines, an initiative that created the first cross-industry framework for voluntary corporate environmental reporting. With its in-house goals, the company made a concentrated effort to show that it was practicing what it preached.
“For decades, IBM has focused on energy conservation, which means getting the same job done for less energy,” he said. “Now, that isn’t always regarded as the coolest or the neatest aspect of this. But it continues to be extremely important. And when you get the same job done for less energy, you’re simply having less emissions.”
IBM’s green focus is global, Balta said, adding the company has “a team of people who, year in and year out, continue to look for opportunities at all the places around the world where IBM is located.”
And while the company is within striking distance of goals that it expected to reach by 2025, a new impetus was ratcheted up during the past year that resulted in the implementation of 1,660 energy conservation projects at nearly 230 of its locations around the world. Balta estimated that these projects delivered annual energy savings of 136,000 MWh, or 3.2% of IBM’s total energy use last year – surpassing its corporate goal of 3%.
“Having business and industry operate in a way that’s respectful of the place where we all live simply reflects IBM’s values,” Balta said. “We’re constantly trying to be respectful of the environment, because as individuals we all enjoy it and get value from it in different ways.”
But what happens when the company finally reaches its goals? Balta said an encore is going to be challenging.
“It gets tougher after you’ve picked the low hanging fruit,” he said, with a laugh. “I look to the day when we increase that goal even further. That has to do with the issue of climate change in terms of pollution prevention and waste management. We continue to rigorously receive our old hardware for reuse, remanufacturing and recycling, rather than disposal.
“But I think the big picture going forward,” he said, “is to see how the world’s most advanced information technologies – analytics, Internet of Things, machine learning, natural language processing, edge computing, blockchain – can be applied to data about the environment, to underpin new solutions to old problems. That to me, is certainly the next era. And it’s one that I’m quite personally passionate about.”
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