What can tech do to avert the global climate change crisis?

Quantum computing, blockchain, and AI hold a huge potential in reducing emissions while helping developing economies adapt to climate change hazards.
IBM's quantum chips are named after birds. The 433-qubit Osprey chip can be used to enforce compliance with carbon emission standards. It replaces last year's 127-qubit Eagle chip.
IBM's quantum chips are named after birds. The 433-qubit Osprey chip can be used to enforce compliance with carbon emission standards. It replaces last year's 127-qubit Eagle chip.
Photo: Ryan Lavine for IBM (Reuters)
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Future survival of humans on earth is bleak, with climatologists warning that world governments have only nine years from now to save future generations from climate change’s fatal devastation.

A number of countries are showing great promise in averting the crisis but many others are still obsessed with fossil fuel exploration, with fossil fuel lobbyists very well represented at the ongoing COP27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt.

Trillions of dollars are needed to finance climate change adaptation in the developing world which has suffered the worst climate ravages, but also unmet promises in climate funding. What can technology do to help the world escape the perils it created? From carbon capture innovations, sustainable design of data centers, growing seaweed for cows, advancing green energy adoption, and regulating the cooling industry, technology is being used to help control human destruction to nature. But challenges remain on how to get every country involved.

Quartz spoke to Saad Toma, the general manager for IBM Middle East & Africa on the various innovations that the world can rely on to control emissions, and what that means to Africa. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

IBM is the official tech partner at COP27. What role does tech play as the world looks for a solution to climate change and what have been the hurdles?  

Many tech companies know the time to act is now, but progress is hindered by a lack of expertise or not knowing where to start. Their challenge is to make environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues a true business driver while delivering returns on investment (ROI.) Research conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, has shown that only 23% of global CEOs are implementing sustainability strategies across their organizations.

At COP27, organizational leaders inside and outside the technology sector must recognize sustainability as a core element of their business strategy. Organizations must examine how they can best establish an ESG data foundation to operationalize sustainability goals and increase transparency. Data-driven intelligence suites are vital to reducing the cost, time, and the burden of ESG reporting, so that organizations can focus on delivering ESG strategic outcomes.

Data is a critical part of the solution. It is important to create a clear baseline to underpin every goal from which to determine your current impact, track progress, and implement adjustments. This requires a single system of record to integrate and manage data that aligns to your goals. Collect, correlate, visualize, and analyze relevant data so you can deliver transparent, verifiable, financial-grade information and more easily identify where improvements are most needed.

Technology is a critical enabler to meet ESG targets both internally and externally. We operationalize sustainability end-to-end with data-driven innovation through a comprehensive portfolio of industry-leading technology capabilities. For example, one of our five business imperatives for helping companies accelerate their sustainable journey is focusing on responsible computing and green IT. Globally, computers, data centers, and networks consume 10% of the world’s electricity. Hybrid cloud solutions such as Turbonomic and IBM Cloud can help optimize data centers, IT operations, and platforms to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

You’ve previously published research on quantum computing as a critical solution to combating climate hazards. How prepared is Africa for this technology?  

We believe that technology is a critical enabler in helping organizations meet ESG targets both internally and externally. It’s important to be decisive and use every option to reduce human-caused contributions to climate change and emerging technologies are foundational to that goal. That is why IBM researchers are turning to quantum computing and other emerging technologies to discover new solutions for a more sustainable planet. At the recent IBM Quantum Summit 2022 we unveiled ‘IBM Osprey’—IBM’s new 433-quantum bit (qubit) processor, which will bring us a step closer to the point where quantum computers will be used to tackle previously unsolvable problems.

While green tech such as hybrid cloud is already speeding up the fight against climate change, quantum computing has the potential to make a major impact in the future.

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. IBM Research Africa was the first industrial research facility on the continent, and it is actively engaging with Africa’s rich and diverse innovation ecosystem to kick-start new business opportunities and ensure the full commercial viability of its solutions and services.

Blockchain and AI are playing a huge role in climate adaptation in some countries. What can be done to take these technologies to every African nation?  

Climate change impacts everyone from all four corners of the globe including right here in Africa. The right partnerships are key to reducing the effects of climate change. That is why we work closely with our clients and partners in Africa to help solve their complex challenges by bringing together the right consulting expertise, innovative technologies, and ecosystem partners to have the greatest impact on global sustainability.

Environmental justice programs such as IBM Sustainability Accelerator and Call For Code—our social impact programs enabling organizations and communities to tackle environmental issuesare crucial to bringing transformational technology solutions into communities in need and they are examples of how we get green emerging technologies to be gradually adopted across the continent while assisting in climate adaptation.

What do you make of the role of semiconductors in the development of green technologies?  

Semiconductors are at the heart of the green technological evolution we are currently experiencing. They play critical roles in everything from computing to appliances, to communication devices, transportation systems, and critical infrastructure. As demand for green IT solutions in areas such as hybrid cloud, AI, and the Internet of Things continues to increase, organizations are demanding energy efficiency along with increased chip performance.

Last year, we announced the world’s first chip with 2 nanometer technology, projected to achieve 75% lower energy use than today’s most advanced 7 nm node chips. The potential benefits of the chip include quadrupling cell phone battery life, slashing the carbon footprint of data centers, drastically speeding up a laptop’s functions and contributing to faster object detection. All these greatly enhance the sustainability benefits of green technologies.

How should companies approach climate tech sustainability policies?

The past two years have been a catalyst in shifting our views on not only how we live, work, and play but also on sustainability. According to our recent consumer study, 62% of consumers say they’re willing to change their purchasing habits to reduce environmental impact, up from 57% two years ago. They demand more transparency and sustainability in the entire supply chain of the products they purchase and consume.

That is why it is critical for organizations to not just speak about sustainability but put sustainability at the heart of their operations and enshrine them in their policies. For instance, we have a track record of setting precedents with environmental commitments for over 50 years. To keep us honest and accountable, we launched IBM Impact, our new ESG framework with our goals and commitments for creating a more sustainable, equitable, and secure future.

We have a set of 21 environmental commitments including achieving net zero greenhouse emissions by 2030 to extend our decades-long commitment to environmental responsibility. We will achieve this target by focusing on short-term objectives such as acquiring 75% of the electricity IBM consumes worldwide from renewable sources in just the next three years. Creating sustainable foundations and policies now will position companies for a more efficient, resilient, and inclusive world for the betterment of future generations.