Harnessing computing and data to achieve net zero

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The use of digital technologies is growing rapidly and has been accelerated in this pandemic, but their energy use has grown much more slowly. Efficiencies in data centres over the past decade mean that overall, their energy consumption has stayed level despite rising demand. At the same time the switch to digital often, but not always, removes the need and associated emissions of a physical meeting, product, or service.

Digital technology, from smart meters to supercomputers, weather modelling and AI, could deliver nearly one third of the carbon emission reductions required by 2030, a report by the Royal Society has said. The Digital Technology and the Planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero report sets a roadmap for maximising data and digital technologies’ role in building a low carbon economy and a green recovery from COVID-19.

“The tech sector is able to lead by example,” Professor Andrew Hopper, chair, Digital Technology, and the Planet working group, and vice president, The Royal Society, says. “It can manage its own carbon footprint, for instance by scheduling computing jobs at times of peak power production, to make the best use of renewable sources. To allow transparency and wider planning, the tech sector should make public the data on its own emissions. The tech industry should also ensure the energy use of infrastructure development and technology applications is proportionate. Regulators can also provide guidance on this matter.”

One particularly striking example that Hopper highlights is bitcoin, which wastes huge amounts of energy in its generation. “As technologies emerge and evolve, we should ensure energy proportionality is baked in from the very first lines of code,” he adds. “Government should use the net zero target to drive momentum behind the provision of data access, digital infrastructure and skills.”

Increased access to digital services

The report reveals that in Spring 2020, only 12 per cent of UK homes and offices had access to full-fibre broadband. In the recovery from the pandemic, there is an imperative to close the digital divide and skills gaps, giving people the chance to get back to meaningful jobs across the country. “The scale of the net zero challenge demands new models for innovation be explored,” Hopper says. “This includes an ecosystem supporting open repositories of intellectual property and rewarding high-risk challenge-led research. Government, funders, industry, and academia – from computer science to social sciences – must combine research and development efforts to greater effect.

A wide range of estimates have been published for the carbon footprint of digital systems themselves, but further work is needed to evaluate the potential climate impact of increasing use of digital technologies. To allow greater monitoring and scrutiny, data about the energy consumption and emissions associated with the whole life cycle of digital technologies should be made widely available. Data centres are increasingly running on clean energy and could further help the uptake of intermittent renewable energy sources by scheduling computing at times of peak renewable production.

“Tech companies must play their part and lead by example on providing transparent information about the energy consumption and proportionality of their digital products and services, the report recommends. Digital technology’s estimated contribution to global emissions range from 1.4 per cent to 5.9 per cent, the report says.

“There are many routes to net zero, but digital technology has a central role to play, no matter what sector or country you look at,” Hopper continues. “This pandemic has accelerated the digital transition, so now is the time to take stock and ensure the sustainable development of future digital technologies and systems.

“Transparent technology can benefit consumers, the technology sector and the planet. If more people are confident in moving their computing onto the cloud, energy savings are possible using more efficient data centres. We must stay alert to digital demand outpacing the carbon emission reductions this transition promises. But this report shows how addressing barriers to innovation and harnessing the potential of our technology can make a sustainable net-zero future a reality.”  

Plotting a digital path to net zero

The report highlights the role that digital technology can play in helping achieve the global emissions targets by enabling a shift towards zero-carbon solutions. In the face of potentially catastrophic climate change, attention is increasingly turning to the potential of digital technologies as a tool for reducing and controlling emissions. “Recent years have brought rapid advances in digital technologies and expansion of their applications, transforming daily lives and the economy,” Hopper explains. “Algorithms now calculate the fastest routes on maps, analyse medical images to detect diseases, and discover new astronomical phenomena. These advances in digital capabilities and applications will continue, reaching more people in new ways.”

That is backed up by the latest figures from Cisco’s annual report that shows that the total number of internet users around the world was projected to grow from 3.9 billion in 2018 to 5.3 billion by 2023 (a jump from 51 per cent to 66 per cent of the global population).

The report identifies four key areas to help secure a digital-led transition to a low carbon future: building a trusted data infrastructure for net zero; optimising our digital carbon footprint; establishing a data-enabled net zero economy; and setting research and innovation challenges to digitalise the net zero transition. 

“Digital technology lets us do things differently and it has huge potential to help achieve net zero – if used responsibly,” said Adrian Friday, professor of computing and sustainability, University of Lancaster, and a member of the report’s working group. “That means thinking much more carefully about how the entire system impacts on the planet and society. It is more than the energy efficiency of a video call, or the emissions to build the digital infrastructure that keeps the internet running and growing. It is how these technologies change our society and habits.

“By filling in these gaps, the technology sector and regulators can help us build a more sustainable future.”

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