The role of digital and data in achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett February 17, 2021
Digital technology may have a key role to play in helping the UK hit its net zero emission targets, but the challenges ahead are huge.

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(Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay )

Digital technology and the smart use of data will play a crucial role in enabling the UK to hit the government's net zero carbon emission targets by 2050.

In the words of Mattie Yeta, Head of Sustainability at Defra [Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] IT during a roundtable event at techUK's Future Summit last week:

"Research shows that technology can reduce 15% of global emissions, and we need to do it by 2050 to meet our net zero goals. We have initiatives underway - the government is taking responsibility for our emissions through what we buy and our work with the supply chain because we must lead by example. We're setting ambitious targets and walking the walk, but the private sector and academia also have a big role to play in innovation, particularly with data.

However, for such innovation to occur elsewhere, Caterina Brandmayr, Head of Climate Policy at think tank and charity the Green Alliance, believes that several building blocks have to be in place. As a result, the government first of all needs to:

  • Join up its digital and environmental strategies across areas like transport, buildings and energy, and place decarbonisation at their heart using digital tech to help;
  • Invest in data and systems infrastructure to facilitate a green economy and make it easy to lower the country's carbon footprint;
  • Ensure employers have the skills in place to take advantage of technology, while also ensuring staff buy-in;
  • Find ways to encourage the wider population to support the transition by engaging different groups constructively and addressing privacy and security issues.

As to how organisations can help today, Brandmayr believes that, while "resource efficiency" is often overlooked, it is an underestimated activity, albeit one that is starting to gain prominence. She explained:

Ensuring the UK maximises opportunities for energy efficiency isn't sexy but it's vital in the near-term and so we shouldn't shy away from it just because it seems easy.

How to catalyse rapid change

Franck Fourniol, Senior Policy Advisor (Data and AI) at the Royal Society, considers, on the other hand, that the value to be gained from digital tech is "not just about efficiency". Instead in his view, it is more about the ability it provides to "catalyse rapid change"

Digital technology can help us do things differently and orchestrate the transition to a low carbon society in areas like logistics, consolidating deliveries and ensuring that fewer vans are on the roads. There are sensors to enable a circular economy and to identify, track and trace materials. There's also digital twin technology to reduce emissions, help increase energy input by as much as 20% and set up feedback loops to help predict maintenance requirements. Digital twins can also be used for sectors, such as food, to understand the impact of farming on system resilience.

In fact, Fourniol believes that digital twins could in future be "critical in enabling a system-wide understanding of the country's built and natural environment". It might even be worth building a "planetary digital twin" to understand the consequences of building infrastructure on people's behaviour, biodiversity and the like. He explained:

COP26 is a big opportunity and the UK could push this as technology for the planet. Companies could dedicate part of their computing power to it.

In order to make this kind of vision a reality though, it will be necessary to create a "trusted baseline infrastructure", Fourniol pointed out. Initiatives, such as the government's Energy Data Taskforce have already done a good job in coming up with recommendations for how the energy industry and public sector could collaborate more effectively, with the aim of improving data availability and transparency across government and the built environment in order to generate change. But Fourniol added:

There's a huge opportunity for government to show leadership, and we need to see much more. The data infrastructure has to be trustworthy, that is it has to be secure, resilient and work for everyone. We also have to optimise our digital footprint, so we need more and better data. Existing figures say that global emissions from the tech industry, for example, are between 1.5-6%, so it's a big differential. The energy consumption of data centres has stayed steady and they're a major user of renewable energy, which is a good thing. But technology like Bitcoin wastes loads of energy.

Significant challenges ahead

As a result, he believes the sector needs to "lead by example", which means not only reporting carbon emissions but also making more data available - which is the "key for trust" - about the carbon footprint of their products throughout the entire lifecycle.

Other actions required to effect change include preparing the economy for transition by retraining people across the country in everything from data literacy to data science skills. Setting up research and innovation facilities to enable collaboration across all industry sectors will also be vital by creating a "digital commons", for instance, to "contribute data, software and other building blocks to spur innovation faster".

One sector at the heart of the debate, whose digitalisation journey has only just begun, meanwhile, is energy. As Laura Sandys, CEO of consultancy Challenging Ideas, explained:

If you think energy systems will be just about optimisation, look at the different elements that will exist in future…Digitalisation will be a massive change from today. There are currently 400 key players in the sector. But in the future, we'll move from 400 to 50 million actions and assets, including heat pumps and consumers…So if we don't change how we manage them, we'll have collapse. There's massive operational value in the system too though as customer rewards and storage and flexibility are unlocked.

But there are other significant challenges ahead as well. For example, the intermittent energy generated by renewable sources means that networks will have to be redesigned in order to become more flexible at both the local and national level, albeit at a "reasonable cost", said Randolph Braziers, Director of Innovation at industry body, the Energy Networks Association. He continued:

You need storage to help manage renewables. To enable flexibility at scale, you have to access millions of devices, such as heat pumps, in the home and in business. You need a smart grid and you need digitalisation and better data to enable it, while to visualize data, you need an underlying telecoms infrastructure. We already have some of it, but it has to get better.

Understanding how to mitigate the risks

Another big issue is the sheer number of existing appliances and infrastructure, such as plug sockets, that are currently neither digitised nor connected. As George Kamiya, a Digital Analyst at the intergovernmental International Energy Agency, explained:

How do you combine rapid cycles of digitalisation and software updated weekly with the old hardware in the system? If you're trying to be energy-efficient, it's an interesting challenge to scale up new cleantech and then incorporate legacy technologies too.

Ultimately though, pointed out Braziers, while some "individual elements" of the puzzle are already in place, nowhere do they exist "at scale". As a result, he believes the government needs to choose two or three "net zero or energy transformation towns" in order to test the concept and prove it works.

Brown, Chief Technology Officer at incubator Energy Systems Catapult, considers technology to be "only part of the equation":

We need policy and governance and integration…We have to understand the consequences and interactions to ensure outcomes are positive and of value. So another connected area to all this is the role of the consumer. To innovate, you have to bring them close, so it's about how to get the right balance between highly digitalised energy systems, open data and consumer input.

What this all means is that the industry has a "huge responsibility" to get it right, not least as there will inevitably be a risky transition period when the country shifts its energy infrastructure to digital systems that will transform both the sector and wider society. As Brown concludes:

We have to be seriously careful and think about it in a holistic way because it's about understanding the collective needs, outcomes and trade-offs in order to mitigate the risks in a way that's acceptable for everybody.

My take

While digital technology and data will inevitably have a huge role to play in helping the UK hit its net zero goals, the amount of work required over the next 30 years to get there appears daunting, and will require the public and private sector to work together with each of them pulling their weight.

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