20 C-suite sustainability champions for 2020

20 C-suite sustainability champions for 2020

If only the C-suite would get it — that environmental, social and governance issues affect the bottom line. That’s long been the refrain among sustainability professionals, who historically have encountered a mixed reception from the top, ranging anywhere from antagonism to tolerance to occasional, outright support.

But it’s starting to click among more corporate chieftains that there’s a business imperative for addressing the climate crisis head on, for whittling waste and emissions down to zero, for providing value to or even restoring the ecosystems and communities in which their companies operate. Without protecting natural capital, after all, there is no value to extract, no product to sell, no job to generate.

As climate change impacts make themselves known ahead of scientific forecasts and national governments fail to lead, more business leaders are stepping up in unprecedented ways. They’re not just signing petitions but building lasting alliances across business, policy and activism, aligning on binding, science-based commitments toward sustainability. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a useful focusing agent.

These 20 corporate leaders are embracing the opportunity to lead their companies in sustainability long beyond the next quarter.

Claus Aaagaard, CFO, Mars

LinkedIn | Company profile

Since its buttercream-candy beginnings in 1911, Mars has been family-owned, which it credits in part for guiding its “moral compass.” Claus Aagaard appears to be aligned with Mars’ five principles of quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.

Aagaard, originally from Denmark, became CFO in 2016 after heading finance for Mars’ pet care division. He has been praised for his strategic thinking and promotes the notion of creating corporate value beyond profits. Mars in 2019 joined Prince Charles of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability network, which seeks to drive finance leaders to shift to resilient business models, considering environmental and social risks in their decision-making. Aagaard recognized that CFOs have been shifting away from cynicism toward sustainability in the past decade: “This calls on the finance community to influence and generate insights to help explain the value these initiatives bring to our society, and our business’ ability to thrive in the long-term.”

Mars has put $1 billion behind its “Sustainable in a Generation” plan, which targets three areas related to the SDGs: “healthy planet, thriving people and nourishing well-being.” The company cultivates clean energy and science-based targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mars stands out for its serious research toward improving cocoa supply chains, including sequencing the genome of the “food of the gods” cacao tree in order to breed disease resistance and increase yields. What’s more, Mars’ efforts to help cocoa farmers in West Africa show its focus on social and ecological impacts.

Gregory Adams, Chairman and CEO, Kaiser Permanente

Company profile

Perhaps nobody wanted the top job less than Greg Adams, a 20-year veteran of the company who reported directly to his friend, CEO Bernard Tyson. But Tyson’s unexpected death in November led to Adams’ moving up to the top spot from executive vice president and group president. Tearing up at Tyson’s memorial service, Adams pledged to move forward on the mission of the company, which serves 12.2 million members, operates 39 hospitals and manages roughly 220,000 employees.

Under Tyson’s leadership, the Oakland, California-based Kaiser advanced sustainability in healthcare. Because the company sees climate change as a public health issue, it’s pushed to slash emissions — installing solar panels at dozens of sites, hundreds of electric car-charging stations and California’s first renewable energy-powered hospital microgrid. Kaiser also moved early to phase out toxic flame retardants at its facilities.

Adams brings Kaiser into the next decade in time for its 2020 carbon neutrality deadline. The next big milestone: carbon positivity by 2025. The groundwork has been laid for the new CEO to continue implementing on ambitious sustainability goals.

Gwénaëlle Avice-Huet, President and CEO, Engie North America; EVP of renewables and green hydrogen, Engie 

LinkedIn | @Gwenaelle_huet

Gwénaëlle Avice-Huet has overseen the North American arm of Engie during its dramatic self-reinvention. The French utility’s makeover came at the behest of global CEO Isabelle Kocher, who shed $15 billion of coal and other legacy assets and bought renewable ones. Avice-Huet joined Engie in 2010, having earlier advised the French Prime Minister’s office and the World Bank. She holds an advanced degree in molecular chemistry.

Avice-Huet leads 6,500 employees in North America under a pro-fossil-fuel White House. “Sooner or later all nations will move toward the energy transition,” she said in 2017. Engie, which operates in 70 countries, advocates for subsidies to help drive new technologies including biogas and green hydrogen. Longer term, Engie foresees more consumers seeking to produce and manage their own energy.

In addition to decentralization and decarbonization, digitalization is central in Engie’s vision for future innovation. The company made a wind farm in the French countryside the first in the world to open up its data, inviting scientists around the world to contribute ideas to optimize its operations. In September, Microsoft announced a huge power purchase agreement for 230 megawatts of renewables, notable for its hybrid of Engie wind and solar projects in Texas. The project uses Engie’s Darwin software, engaging Microsoft cloud tools and processing real-time data on turbines and solar panels. It also guarantees 24/7 local access to renewables. For Avice-Huet, a mix of energy sources is crucial to such a promise.

Jesper Brodin, CEO, IKEA Group

LinkedIn

Jesper Brodin is advancing IKEA’s vision to furnish people with “thin wallets and big dreams in their lives at home” without taking more resources than the planet provides. CEO since 2017, Brodin insists that sustainability is a matter of survival in selling everything from bookshelves and couches to lingonberry jam and vegan hot dogs. IKEA’s customers demand leadership on climate and circularity, he says.

With 1 billion customers, more than 300 stores and a workforce of 200,000, IKEA is popularizing sustainability from its head office in Leiden, Netherlands, down into the living spaces of the masses. It has pledged science-based targets to reduce emissions and is seeking to become carbon positive by 2030. Already IKEA produces more renewable energy than its operations consume, having invested 2.5 billion Euros there. The company even has committed to electric vehicles for all last-mile deliveries by 2025, starting in Shanghai, Paris, Amsterdam, New York and Los Angeles — collaborating with third-party fleet operators. IKEA’s phase-out of single-use plastic in the year ahead is another part of its “people and planet positive” (PDF) ambitions.

Brodin has climbed the ladder at IKEA for two decades, including in Sweden and China, and intends to continue aggressive leadership toward becoming a sustainable company. Because IKEA Group is owned by a foundation, he can afford to invest for the long term without the quarterly earnings squeeze.

Company profile | @tim_cook

“Moral responsibility” wasn’t a core talking point at Apple before Tim Cook was in charge. The native Alabaman who became CEO in 2011 had been known mostly for his genius in operations and withering silences since joining the company in 1998. But Cook’s inner idealist has borne fruit in the public eye.

Since he hired former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson in 2013, Apple’s environmental and social achievements have piled up. It’s one of the first corporations to run 100 percent on renewable energy, and it’s bringing suppliers on board to do the same. Apple has boosted device recycling rates and helped to develop aluminum with zero CO2 emissions to house its hardware. The planet’s second most valuable company by market capitalization is heading toward a circular supply chain that eventually would require no new materials to be mined. At the moment, however, Apple is the target of a stunning new lawsuit — alongside Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla — charging that children were abused for labor in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Cook has underscored that it’s not a “side project or a hobby” for Apple to lead on sustainability; he rejected creating a foundation, fearing it would sit on the sidelines. He maintains that innovation on climate is part of any contemporary leader’s duties.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is celebrated for his digital magic-making, but Cook’s vision leans toward the near-miraculous. “If we can change the world with the devices we make, then we ought to be able to change the course of climate destruction worldwide,” Cook said in October. “At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to try.”

LinkedIn | Company profile | @EmmanuelFaber

As Danone turns 101, it recognizes myriad risks in the next century to its dairy- and plant-based supply chains. In alliance with other food giants, CEO Emmanuel Faber is leading the charge from Paris to address the food and agriculture industry’s role in diminishing the planet’s biodiversity. He was instrumental in launching the first major coalition that aims to create concrete, scalable solutions across sectors to protect biodiversity, with a special focus on alternative farming methods.

One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B), led by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), launched in New York in September. Besides Danone, 19 signatories include Kellogg’s, L’Oreal, Mars, Nestle, Google and Unilever — all tasked to create action plans around their business aspects that affect biodiversity.

Faber says that “food is a human right” and observes the food revolution driven by consumers, particularly Generation Z, for signs to come. To produce Danone’s yogurts, crop-based Silk milks, Evian water and infant formulas, the company seeks to ramp up farming methods that retain water and carbon, and enhance crop resilience.

Danone North America became the largest B Corp in the world in 2018; divisions in Spain and Ireland followed. The pursuit of B Lab certification also led Danone North America to offer up to 26 weeks of parental leave, among other people-friendly policies.

Laurence D. Fink; Founder, Chairman and CEO; BlackRock

LinkedIn | @BlackRock

Sometimes it’s hard to overestimate the effect of a personal letter such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s missive that kicked off 2018. It took a stand that was unheard of in the mainstream investment community, telling other CEOs they must demonstrate a purpose. “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society,” he wrote.

That annual letter launched countless tweets and PowerPoint pages projecting the mega-investor, responsible now for close to $7 trillion, as either prophet or fool. There has been finger-pointing over BlackRock’s enormous holdings in the coal, oil and gas industries, as well as a spoof 2019 letter by the Yes Men pranksters. Nevertheless, Fink’s actual 2019 letter took a step further than the head-turner a year earlier, calling for purpose as the animating force behind profit.

As for BlackRock’s own stated purpose? It’s to help more people make more money, basically, while embedding sustainability throughout the business. The company has $60 billion in “dedicated sustainable investment solutions,” and it launched a circular economy fund in October with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. BlackRock is also involved in high-level organizations such as the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). But the asset manager’s engagement with more than 370 companies on climate risks may yield the most lasting, if intangible, influence beyond Wall Street. The 2020 letter is only days away.

LinkedIn | Company profile | @MarkHawkins

At Salesforce, credit is due to CFO Mark Hawkins for integrating sustainability factors into filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The company’s annual 10-K features a dedicated section on ESG, and its proxy statement includes details for shareholders on sustainability, equality and philanthropy. Quarterly business reviews also feature ESG details.

Hawkins’ vision of a company’s call of duty, uncommon among CFOs, is woven within the cloud software maker’s corporate culture to consider a sense of “ohana,” a Hawaiian term for family, within its ranks. Hawkins has echoed his billionaire boss, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, in the notions that a “new capitalism” is needed and that “values do create value.” Long-term value derives from a healthy society and environment, according to Hawkins in the Salesforce 2019 stakeholder impact report (PDF).

With his technology background as former Autodesk CFO and as an executive at Dell and HP, it’s natural that Hawkins appreciates the impacts of the “fourth industrial revolution” as it matures. He’s a founding member of the Accounting 4 Sustainability CFO Leadership Network. Salesforce, based in a now-iconic 61-story building, literally towers over San Francisco. Similarly, it is seen as a sustainability giant among tech firms.

Michael Lamach, Chairman and CEO, Ingersoll Rand (Trane Technologies)

Company profile

Michael Lamach has called sustainable leadership the thing he worries about most. It’s no wonder; the company has an outsize climate impact as a leader in indoor climate control systems, which emit up to one-quarter of global greenhouse gases.

Lamach, an MBA and trained engineer, became CEO in 2010 after joining Ingersoll Rand in 2004; previously, he worked 17 years at Johnson Controls. Under his leadership, the Ireland-based company this year will meet its goal of wringing GHG emissions from its products and already has cut emissions from operations by 35 percent, two years earlier than targeted. Lamach is taking a bolder sustainability step forward by establishing a “pure-play climate company” he will lead in the new year. That organization, Trane Technologies, will fold in the Trane and Thermo King brands while pursuing dedicated climate-focused technologies, including for refrigerated transport. Ingersoll Rand’s industrial businesses will be merged with Gardner Denver and will continue operating under the Ingersoll Rand name. 

Trane Technologies also will be tasked with advancing a slew of previous Ingersoll Rand commitments for 2030 that involve customers (reduce their CO2 footprint by 1 gigaton); its operations and supply chain (achieve carbon neutrality); its people (achieve workforce diversity and gender parity) and global citizenship (increase community access to nutrition and shelter). Trane Technologies “will redefine the status quo for our industry and challenge what is possible for our customers and the world,” Lamach promises.

LinkedIn | Company profile | @GregL_VMware

The chief technology office at VMware is unique for including sustainability as part of its research and innovation mission. Greg Lavender recently stepped up to lead the charge as CTO, succeeding Ray O’Farrell, who has moved over to the company’s cloud division. Lavender is a computer science heavyweight, with a doctorate in the subject. He joined VMware in 2018 after stints at Citi, Cisco and Sun Microsystems.

The CTO office has touched some of VMware’s more interesting sustainability projects. The company is collaborating with the city of Palo Alto, California, on a community microgrid that combines solar with battery storage and smart grid controls, integrating with the local power grid to explore bolstering city resilience. VMware recently used blockchain technology in working with Dell to collect plastics from the ocean for recycling.

Central to VMware’s tools, of course, is data center sustainability. VMware has developed real-time “carbon scores” as part of a service that helps customers operate and optimize their onsite data centers, for example. It even offers information about how the local grid is working. Resource optimization is an essential focus for the virtualization software leader, which helps companies outsource their data centers, reducing their energy and hardware costs.

Within its own operations, VMware has committed to making a net positive impact, and it became carbon neutral two years ahead of schedule. If O’Farrell as CTO helped to establish the kind of supportive culture he finds essential for innovation, then it’s up to Lavender to carry that work forward.

LinkedIn | Company profile | @RoseMarcario

For decades, Patagonia has been a preeminent activist corporation socially, environmentally and politically. Its rabble-rousing has ratcheted up during Rose Marcario’s nearly 12 years of leadership. The California benefit corporation regularly unleashes the full force of visual and social media, using documentaries, well-oiled participatory websites and virtual reality to educate and mobilize people on its causes.

During Marcario’s tenure, the company launched VC firm Tin Shed Ventures, environmental activism hub Patagonia Action Works and even a food business, Patagonia Provisions

Patagonia made a federal case out of a pet cause, literally, when it filed a lawsuit against the government alongside Native American tribes and grassroots groups in 2017 to protect the Bears Ears National Monument just days after President Donald Trump declared that he would severely reduce its size. Patagonia turned its website black to declare, “The President is Stealing Your Land.”

Marcario has called the U.S. president a “despot” and other CEOs “weenies” for their timidity to activism on important issues. She’s as unorthodox as founder Yvon Chouinard in promoting being “in business to save our home planet.” Marcario also encourages activism among the rank and file. In September, for example, Patagonia closed all its stores so employees could march in the streets during the Global Climate Strike in September. The company’s activist stance appears to be good for business. For example, the Bears Ears lawsuit preceded record sales in 2018.

Mari McClure, President and CEO, Green Mountain Power

Company news

On New Year’s day, 2020, Mari McClure was poised to take over the leadership reins outside Burlington, Vermont, and commence her 10th year with one of the most innovative utilities in the United States.

Green Mountain Power provides energy to most of the state. Although that’s only about a quarter-million people, the company has made a name for itself with aggressive sustainability goals: zero-carbon by 2025 and 100 percent renewables by 2030. It explores a mix of hydropower, wind and solar power, embracing new technologies in novel ways and hasn’t been afraid to explore helping customers go off-grid, such as by blending solar panels with onsite storage. Green Mountain Power is also piloting a patent-pending system in which Tesla Powerwall batteries double as energy meters. The “Ben and Jerry’s of the utility world,” is a certified B Corporation.

Outgoing CEO Mary Powell, who retired after 12 years, is known for her early push to green the grid and has spoken of the company’s “complete energy transformation to a community-, home- and business-based energy system versus the bulk delivery system” of the past century. McClure, a career attorney and former college basketball coach, has worked with Powell for a decade and appears ready to continue Powell’s formidable legacy.

LinkedIn | Company profile

Olam is a food giant most consumers won’t recognize that calls itself the world’s largest farmer. As one of the biggest suppliers of cocoa beans, coffee, cotton and rice, the Singapore-based company has grown phenomenally over 30 years to operate on most continents, selling to nearly 20,000 business customers.

Neelamani Muthukumar has steadily climbed the ranks at Olam over two decades in various roles in Africa and Asia, having been educated in physical science and management. Muthukumar doesn’t present much publicly. But he is credited with weaving sustainability into the global finance team’s meetings.

Olam’s stated purpose is “to re-imagine global agriculture and food systems,” and its vision “to create Living Landscapes where prosperous farmers and thriving communities live in harmony with healthy ecosystems.” Subsistence farmers make up most of the 4 million farmers within Olam’s supply chain. Olam’s other sustainability ambitions include being among the leaders of the CEO-led Global Agri-business Alliance, which seeks to support the SDGs around hunger, nutrition and farming sustainability. Even though the results of Muthukumar’s quiet leadership may not be readily apparent to consumers, its aspirations could have a profound broad global impact on the food system.

Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer, Unilever

LinkedIn | Company profile | @LeenaNairHR

The extremely quotable Leena Nair has a message for the corporate world: You’re leaving too many people behind. She’s the first woman and Asian (and the youngest person) to be chief HR officer at Unilever. Lately, Nair is advocating for businesses to embrace more workers with disabilities, as Unilever strives for them to comprise 5 percent of its workforce by 2025.

It’s just one facet of Unilever’s sweeping embrace of “purpose” and sustainability as business essentials. Nair’s boss CEO Alan Jope recently spoke of shedding brands that fail to drive lasting social or environmental change. In other words, it’s not just about selling soap or ice cream but making communities and ecosystems great in the process.

That emphasis appears to be a hit with customers; Unilever’s 400 “Sustainable Living” lines, including Dove and Knorr, grew 69 percent faster than its others in 2018. The Sustainable Living framework embraces the SDGs within three central targets: to improve 1 billion people’s health by 2020; to knock down its environmental impact by half by 2030; and to enhance the livelihoods of millions by 2020.

Advancing technology without considering human beings, on the other hand, frustrates Nair to no end. “‘People’ is the only sustainable competitive edge that a business has, because everything else can be matched,” she has said. Nair’s numerous leadership roles at the British-Dutch company include transforming human resources and helping women to return to the workforce in South Asia.

Roger Nielsen, CEO, Daimler North America

LinkedIn | Company profile | @DaimlerTrucksNA

Roger Nielsen is steering Daimler North America toward total electrification — a daring move for the company whose namesake Otto Daimler pioneered the gasoline engine, and whose Freightliner and Western Star trucks dominate diesel fleets. Nielsen, a zero-emissions-fleet evangelist, preaches the death of diesel trucks while mourning that no “sane and sober customer” can yet justify buying an electric truck. He calls for government to help accelerate EV development and charging infrastructure.

Seeking to bring down e-truck costs and weight while boosting battery life, Daimler has clocked millions of miles testing electric powertrains. Two of the 38 customer members of Daimler’s new Electric Vehicle Council, including Penske Truck Leasing, are already putting the company’s 250-mile-range Freightliner eCascadia semi on the road in Southern California. The real-world feedback could help inform the goal of producing a fleet-ready electric truck in 2021, not far behind the Tesla Semi expected in late 2020. Meanwhile, the big-rig leader has been creating new internal roles to lead connectivity and automation.

Nielsen, based out of Portland, Oregon, became North American CEO in 2017, having landed at Daimler back in 1986, working in operations 15 years before serving as COO just a bit longer. His industrial engineering background includes an early stint at the Hughes Aircraft Company.

Soren Skou, CEO and interim COO, Maersk

LinkedIn | Company profile

As the leader in the global shipping industry, A. P. Møller-Maersk manages 750 vessels, 4 million shipping containers and 74 ports. It’s also out in front in terms of decarbonizing shipping to abide by the U.N. International Maritime Organization’s goals, and it’s seeking to slice emissions in half by 2050. That could make serious headway in an industry that accounts for 3 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Soren Skou, in his fifth year as CEO, already is credited with a radical transformation at Maersk, having sold off its oil and gas unit and invested $1 billion toward energy-efficient technologies in the last several years. After more than three decades at Maersk, Skou is embracing digital technologies including blockchain in order to achieve efficiencies and create new revenue streams.

Maersk is on a trajectory toward net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, which requires that its fuels, vessels and supply chains must become carbon neutral. For example, the company recently has experimented with a 20 percent biofuel blend. Maersk shares specifics about how it can support the SDGs even beyond the more obvious areas, such as by reducing food loss during transportation and improving the recycling of shipping vessels.

Skou has said that global leaders can do well by delivering on purpose, vision and inspiration in order to help people around the world live well and do well for society.

LinkedIn | @peggysmyth

Peggy Smyth believes that the CFO should serve as the “chief transformation officer,” especially in the fast-changing energy sector. The business model of one of the world’s largest utilities is shifting to embrace technology and decarbonization, with CEO John Pettigrew’s blessing.

Passionate about combating climate change, Smyth made herself chair of the company’s sanctioning committee for all capital projects, and she urges other CFOs to use their “calling card” to go anywhere in their company to influence its direction.

National Grid invests $3 billion a year on core U.S. infrastructure, much of it going to green tech. Its groundbreaking work includes connecting offshore wind power to the grid in Rhode Island, installing low-income community solar in upstate New York and exploring battery storage on Nantucket Island. The 2018 launch of National Grid Ventures further cemented the company’s experimentation with new technologies.

Transforming energy for the utility’s 20 million customers in the northeastern United States is just one aspect of Smyth’s leadership. When she joined Etsy as a board director in 2016, the company attained the rare goal of gender parity on its board. (The average Fortune 500 rate hovers closer to 20 percent.) The crowdsourced crafts marketplace includes environmental and social impacts on its annual 10K report (PDF), echoing Smyth’s recent comments that more investors are asking companies about how ESG factors will impact operations. Etsy’s former CEO Chad Dickerson has lauded Smyth’s “intense curiosity, proven judgment, deep integrity and a collaborative approach.”

Company profile | @Starax

It’s Enel’s official stance that sustainability creates value, and CEO Francesco Starace’s foresees “mind-boggling” opportunities as energy is decarbonized over the next 10 to 15 years. “At that point, you will not say anymore ‘renewables;’ you will just say ‘electricity,’” he said in November. To that end, the Enel Green Power subsidiary manages more than 43 gigawatts of renewables, mostly hydropower, wind and solar, across 120 plants around the world.

Starace, who joined the electricity and gas giant in 2000 and moved into the top spot in 2014, has held a bullish view of the global energy transition for many years. He credits the company’s recent success with renewables with Enel’s policy not to invest in anything that takes longer than three years to build.

Based in Rome, Enel takes an active role in international climate summits, and Starace works with the European Commission on implementing the SDGs. Enel in September issued what it called the world’s first SDG-linked bond. The $1.5 billion bond is linked to the company reaching 55 percent of capacity in renewables by 2021, with a penalty for failure. Although the format has been criticized for being less transparent than green bonds, Starace calls SDG-linked bonds less “clumsy.”

LinkedIn | Company profile | @HamdiUlukaya

Hamdi Ulukaya appears to be the “anti-CEO” he described in a 2019 TED talk — not just for quoting Rumi and walking in the woods during the workday. It started in 2005, when the small-town feta cheese maker bought a yogurt factory that Kraft abandoned, angered to see its community written off. Now the self-made billionaire who shepherded Greek yogurt into the U.S. mass market seeks not only to grow a business but benefit people in the process — and believes business can do more than the government on climate, too.

Ten percent of profits went to charity once Chobani hit grocery shelves in 2007. The company has become the No. 2 seller of yogurt in the United States and has grown from funding Little League Baseball fields to sponsoring the U.S. Olympics. Ulukaya has grown from hiring refugees and immigrants for 30 percent of his 2,000-head workforce to launching the Tent Foundation, seeking to assist 25 million refugees around the world. Corporate heavyweights are on board with the nonprofit, the likes of Cisco, HP Inc., Microsoft and Unilever, in the spirit of helping displaced people rewrite the narrative of victimhood. Ulukaya, who is Kurdish, came to the United States from eastern Turkey in 1993 and said he instantly felt at home in upstate New York.

The idea of maximizing shareholder profits as the No. 1 corporate mandate is ludicrous to him. “The truest measure of the business is not return on investment but return on kindness,” Ulukaya has said.

Company profile

Outspoken airline veteran Willie Walsh seeks to pilot the industry toward a carbon-neutral horizon. Under his leadership at IAG, owner of British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus, the airline group in October became the first to set a course toward net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 — double the industry’s overall target, which Walsh helped to define a decade ago.

Less than 3 percent of CO2 emissions originate from air travel, but rising demand could supersize its carbon footprint in decades ahead. Walsh, a former Boeing 737 captain, advocates for long-term advancements, like hybrid electric aircraft. Since burning fuel accounts for 99 percent of IAG’s greenhouse gas emissions and 25 percent of operating costs, efficiency is crucial in aircraft maintenance, route planning and design. IAG has saved 200,000 tonnes of CO2 in the past several years: an app for IAG pilots displays data on fuel usage, and the newest aircraft are 20 percent more efficient than their predecessors.

IAG is investing $400 million toward alternative fuels in the next two decades. British Airways is working to bring a U.K. plant online that will convert household waste to jet fuel by 2024. IAG’s Hangar 51 startup accelerator focuses on logistics, artificial intelligence, carbon capture, waste management and cleantech.

Dublin-born Walsh intends to retire in 2021, but his goal to ensure air travel’s environmental viability for the masses appears to be shared by others in the IAG C-suite, including British Airways CEO Alex Cruz.