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Advancing progress towards Net Zero: AIB’s Karen Coyle on her ESG career journey

We speak with Karen Coyle, winner of the IOB Future of Finance Award for ESG Positive Impact, about her groundbreaking work with AIB and the rise of ESG as a career path in financial services.

Sustainability is at the heart of AIB’s strategy and agenda. Karen Coyle, Head of Energy, Environment, Health and Safety has witnessed the bank transform to become a recognised leader in sustainability in Ireland. She has been at the centre of this exciting journey since joining AIB ten years ago. Karen recently won the ESG Positive Impact Award at the IOB Future of Finance Awards in recognition of her outstanding work in the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) area.

“I was hired as energy manager in AIB and was their first sustainability employee. It has grown exponentially since then over the last ten years,” Karen explains. With a background in engineering, she completed a post-grad in renewable energy, which inspired her to pursue a career focused on sustainability.

“From an early stage, I always believed that sustainability made good business sense. In an operational sense it means efficiency – it can lead to improved business practices, improved customer outcomes or improved cost savings,” she says.

Achieving net zero

Karen’s nominator for the IOB Future of Finance Awards cited her groundbreaking work to achieve net zero carbon emissions with AIB’s operations by 2030. A key aspect of this work was the negotiation and signing of a Corporate Power Purchase Agreement between AIB and NTR plc. The agreement will see two solar farms of 75 acres built in County Wexford. The initiative will provide AIB with a fully certifiable supply of renewable energy, in line with best practice in accounting for Scope 2 emissions, the term used to describe the indirect emissions created by the production of the energy that an organisation buys.

“This is completely new in Ireland – a solar power purchase agreement. We have spent about two to three years working to put this together,” says Karen. Following extensive feasibility studies and research, Karen led the project which will contribute new energy to the Irish grid, a concept knows as “additionality”. The agreement is the first of its kind by an Irish corporate. AIB’s ambition and commitment to advance progress in this important area has enabled Karen and her team to pioneer and lead innovative initiatives.

“If we have a good idea that’s aligned with the strategy, and you can build a business case, and gain approval, then you can move forward with it. It really allows great role satisfaction. You are seeing year on year that AIB is progressing with its strategy, and that you’re making a strong contribution to that.”

Karen Walsh 2

Collaborating to drive progress

The project required extensive collaboration and stakeholder engagement across the business. “Almost every department across AIB was impacted by the project,” Karen says. “Every department had to learn about a new concept and then we had to work together to ensure that we got a deal which satisfied everything that we required internally from our own risk management processes, but also a deal which would be commercially viable in the market.”

Work has begun on building the solar farms, the first of which will be completed in Autumn 2023. Following almost three years of extensive work on the project, Karen is looking forward to visiting the site. “Seeing something that was a concept that will become a physical reality later this year, that’s something to be very proud of. It’s also really contributing to our ESG strategy – not just at AIB, but nationally.”

Illuminating a career path for others

Karen is also actively involved with mentoring within AIB. She is a member of the committee that runs AIB’s Mentor Her programme. The one-year programme matches women at all levels with more senior mentors in AIB. Karen has seen its positive impact firsthand.

“I’ve really seen women grow in confidence. In banking and finance, there are such a range of opportunities and people are often bewildered with where they can go in their career. Having that benefit of mentoring can illuminate the pathway and open people’s eyes to the innumerous opportunities available within banking and finance,” says Coyle.

She is passionate about increasing awareness of the extensive opportunities available within the ESG space in financial services. “It’s a huge growth area at the moment. When you look at what’s coming down the track from the European Central Bank and European legislation, this is an area that is not going away,” Karen says. “The role that finance is going to play in the green transition and achieving all the climate goals – it’s an exciting area to be in. If you’re looking for a change in your banking career, I would definitely advise – this is the area to look at.”

As an IOB Future of Finance Award winner, Karen was delighted to be recognised for her work in advancing ESG progress. “It was a wonderful surprise to hear my name called out. It shows how ESG has grown in importance across the financial services industry. To receive a banking award in a non-traditional banking area made me feel very proud. It’s a good testament to the work and support that I’ve received across my ten years with AIB. It’s not just this project, it’s the ten years of all the smaller projects and work by many people that have led to the current position where we are a market leader in this area.”

IOB Future of Finance Awards

Karen Coyle won the ESG Positive Impact award at the IOB Future of Finance Awards 2023. Learn more about the IOB Future of Finance Awards the 2023 winners here.