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Q&A with Ibrahim Al-Zu'bi: The rise of the ‘Chief Sustainability Officer’ and why it matters

Published · Updated
Denise Rotondo
Partner and Business Engagement Lead, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda

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  • Environmental risks dominate the risk landscape over the short and long term, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2023.
  • Businesses are responding: in 2021, the number of Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) tripled, according to PwC research.
  • Here, ADNOC's Ibrahim Al-Zu'bi explains how the role has developed and what the future holds for CSOs.

Over the next ten years, all but one of the five biggest global risks will be environmental, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2023.

In the more immediate term, five of the top 10 risks over the next two years are environmental.

With businesses increasingly being held accountable for climate action through environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting metrics, the demand for dedicated oversight in boardrooms has grown.

In 2021, the number of Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) tripled, according to PwC research.

Top 10 global risks in order of severity.
Environmental risks dominate the risk landscape over the short and long term. Image: World Economic Forum

As the challenges presented by the climate crisis become increasingly pressing in terms of speed, scale and complexity, CSOs play a vital role in helping CEOs and their organizations navigate this shifting landscape. They help establish a clear vision and mobilize resources for the meaningful change needed to create long-term value.​

CSOs are responsible for identifying the key issues at stake, providing strategic direction, thought leadership, and supporting the business planning and governance process.

As a report from Deloitte and the Institute of International Finance finds, "the CSO is emerging as the 'sense-maker in chief' in the organization".

But they can only fulfil that role if they have a proper seat at the table. PwC found that "too few CSOs have sufficient access to the board ... and therefore lack the influence to shape the sustainability transformation".

Deloitte's 'four faces' management model.
The CSO role has broad implications business-wide. Image: Deloitte

The Forum's Community of Chief Sustainability Leaders brings together over 90 business executives from top global companies to gain insights on the nature and climate agenda alongside its impact on business. With representation from diverse industries and countries, the Community establishes a platform for leaders to connect, learn, lead, and collaborate in expediting corporate transformation towards sustainable organizations.

Here, Ibrahim Al-Zu'bi, Senior Vice President of Sustainability, Climate Change & ESG at ADNOC Group, and the UAE's Chair of the Global Council on SDG 13: Climate Action, explains his role as a CSO.

What is your current role and how do you support your organization’s strategy?

My role is to lead and oversee the implementation of the ADNOC sustainability strategy across the organization and the value chain. This includes working with internal and external stakeholders, implementing sustainable business practices, and engaging with key stakeholders to drive long-term value creation. Part of the role is identifying and managing environmental and social risks as part of our overall sustainability strategy.

Beyond the organization, I work on collaborating with the stakeholders and my peers, CSOs, to play an important role internally and externally at the national and regional levels.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

What is the role of a 'Chief Sustainability Leader' operating within the energy sector?

As an energy company, we can shape the sector's future by driving net-zero solutions and inclusive discussions regarding energy, energy transition, or sustainability at large with the three pillars: social, economic and environmental. What does it look like in our company? ADNOC is a responsible provider of reliable and affordable energy to the world, and this is part of our sustainability strategy. But also, we lead by example by becoming the first major hydrocarbon producer that uses zero-carbon nuclear and solar power to supply 100% of our electricity onshore, which is part of our sustainability best practices.

We are also leading when it comes to climate if we consider our commitment as part of the oil and gas partnership to [keep global temperatures] less than 1.5℃ by 2025. Ensuring this is the strategy and it is being implemented is the role of the CSO. Finally, we deliver practical solutions for the overall commitment of net zero by 2050 ambition for the countries we operate in. This can be done in different ways: With international and national partnerships that provide low-carbon intensity energy and drive the production of new low-carbon energies to our customers and invest in the future of such energies for our customers to achieve net zero targets, as well as implement decarbonization operations on the ground to ensure we also achieve our internal targets.

How do you see your role contributing to the broader job market landscape?

Promoting the need for sustainability as a core business practice and business necessity will, by default, create a demand in the job market. You need practitioners in the different pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. When we do that, we are contributing to the economy by providing a platform for social and economic development in the communities as well as a need for the workforce to meet such targets.

At ADNOC, we are investing in a diverse, resilient and globally competitive energy sector in the UAE. In 2018, we invested and launched the in-country value programme to maximize value retention within the UAE by increasing the in-country spending from our investments, as well as encouraging our supply chain to do the same. The programme incentivizes working closely with local businesses, and, of course, sustainability is part of it, using local products, manufacturing facilities, people, human resources, services, and infrastructures.

To put it in numbers, since the programme’s launch, ADNOC has driven around 38 billion dirhams back into the UAE economy. This is important, first for the economy and second for the job market, with about 5,000 UAE nationals employed in the supply chain other than ADNOC. It’s a great workforce to generate such in-country value. We aim to drive over 48 billion dollars back into the UAE economy.

Have you read?

How do you measure success in your work?

Success is important. And success means driving positive impact across our organization and stakeholder community, to create a community of sustainable people and sustainable business. This is what I do daily. But success at work is more broadly measured by driving sustainable growth for our organization and stakeholders. This means maximizing the socio-economic impact and ensuring socio-economic value creation, which is as important as making the work ready, and reducing our environmental footprint.

Simply put, we maximize our socioeconomic impact while minimizing our negative environmental impact at the organizational level, which can be measured by meeting our sustainability commitments and achieving our sustainability performance targets. At ADNOC, we have set ambitious climate, environmental and economic targets, and I am happy to report we are on track to achieving them.

I believe our sector is transitioning to a low-carbon future, evolving technology and automation. At ADNOC, we are investing in the development of cleaner alternatives such as hydrogen and renewable energy. We are doing this at scale. This was a pilot a couple of years ago – at that time, the challenge was the scalability, and we started doing this at scale as an industry.

We have always been open to partnering with technology pioneers from around the world to ensure we operate in the most efficient, safe, cost, and sustainable way possible. To give an example, we are working closely with a company called 44.01 which won the prestigious 2022 Earthshot Prize in the climate category – to mineralize CO2 into rocks. We are looking to do this at scale. This pilot is successful and could pave the way for us to mineralize billions of tons of CO2 emissions. Imagine how big this is for the industry, for job creation, as well as for the environment. So, we have many exciting projects underway in this space and look forward to sharing more about them.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalJobs and the Future of Work
What is your current role and how do you support your organization’s strategy?What is the role of a 'Chief Sustainability Leader' operating within the energy sector?How do you see your role contributing to the broader job market landscape?How do you measure success in your work?What do you think are some of the most significant trends shaping the future of work?

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