What is digital decarbonization and why is it important for CIOs?
In times where climate protection is no longer an option but an imperative, data and digital technologies have proven to be crucial in achieving a net-zero world. They can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, strengthen resilience to climate-related natural hazards and improve organizational capacity to act. There is no doubt that digital and decarbonization will go hand in hand as catalysts for change in the years to come.
While thousands of companies are setting net-zero goals and have a pressing need for a more structured approach, all eyes seem to be on the CIOs. As drivers of innovation and change, CIOs must develop holistic strategic plans to reduce emissions and implement sustainable solutions, such as consolidated digital platforms, green data centers and energy cost and consumption monitoring.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the digital and e-Commerce sectors continue to grow relentlessly. Organizations are also shifting from selling specific products or services to offering multiple digital and industrial solutions. Mobile technologies, wearables and sensors, cloud computing and big data technologies are redefining business models. These changes require heightened levels of security, support and maintenance, along with innovative solutions for the sustainability issues arising from the digital sector’s consumption of energy and resources, which accounts for 1.4% of global emissions and 3.6% of global electricity use.
Having accurate, real-time data can help organizations plan appropriately, but continued data growth can lead to climate risk, since storing data requires power, which further contributes to emissions. To counteract negative impact, digitization must be intelligent and combined with sustainable practices such as Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), reducing waste, improving efficiency and using renewable energy sources.
Decarbonized operations and secure digital services will be instrumental in reaching the global net-zero goal. As a CIO, you can accelerate climate action within your organization using this systematic approach:
1. Understand your current climate impact
By establishing your IT function’s baseline carbon footprint, you can identify emission reduction strategies and track your progress towards achieving the set carbon emission target. It also enables you to understand your full impact across all scopes of your organization. By carrying out a Digital Decarbonization Assessment (DDA) you can gain a deep understanding of your digital carbon footprint and set appropriately ambitious yet achievable targets.
2. Reduce your digital footprint
The digital sector is already on track to reduce its own emissions, and has the opportunity to cut its emissions in half by 2030 while improving data performance exponentially. After measuring and quantifying your organization’s digital carbon footprint, the next step is to reduce the IT operations carbon footprint. Consolidate, transform and modernize data centers by moving to renewable energy, implementing efficiency measures and consuming less through virtualization and cloud computing. Once consolidated, digitized operations are in place, move to renewable energy sources for IT operations to make decarbonization easier and the net-zero target more achievable.
As a result of the pandemic, the transition to cloud services has already contributed to decarbonization. Before the crisis, a survey found that 88% of organizations used the cloud. During the pandemic, investment in cloud infrastructure rose dramatically according to Synergy Research, with a 37% rise in Q1 of 2020 compared to Q1 of 2019. This continued throughout the year, with investment still 28% higher year-on-year for Q3.
Many industries have adopted remote working by using shared file drives, proxy networks, intelligent collaborative tools and video conferencing, decreasing the need to travel to a central location. As long as homeworking emissions are considered, this can also help reduce carbon emissions.
3. Lead organizational transformation through technological innovations
5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) will allow you to harness digital innovations and accelerate change. Real-time feedback from intelligent assets, collateral and components can result in significant benefits, including increased production efficiency, reduced costs and waste, improved lifecycle of machinery and reduced maintenance. Digital twins can be powerful tools to accelerate climate action, as data is communicated through 3D virtual models of physical objects like buildings, wind turbines or cars. Connected sensors on the physical assets collect data that is mapped onto the virtual models, enabling a detailed understanding of how products are performing now and in the future. Digital twin technology has also been used in the development of nearly 85% of the world’s electric vehicles.
However, innovations can also be significant carbon emitters. 5G’s main impact comes from manufacturing the many components of 5G infrastructure and the new devices that will use it. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is crucial to reveal emission reduction opportunities along the supply chain, and to optimize resource efficiency.
5G networks are complex, but when linked with IoT, they can enable reduced energy emissions by using sensors to monitor and optimize energy consumption in buildings, transportation, factories and homes. A study commissioned by the GSMA found that mobile technology reduced global CO2 emissions by over 2 million tonnes in 2018, ten times the carbon footprint of the mobile industry itself.5G will also increase the amount of data that each person creates, putting more pressure on data centers. This means more electrical consumption, greater environmental impact from chemical coolants, and a potentially lethal impact on soils, groundwater and streams from improper battery disposal.
AI is already being used to reduce data center energy consumption, with Google implementing an AI-powered recommendation system to directly control data center cooling, under the supervision of human operators.
Notwithstanding, it’s difficult to quantify AI’s energy consumption and carbon emission. More transparency and standardization can help AI evolve in the right direction. With an appropriate framework in place, companies can integrate AI across their activities in a climate-friendly and ethical manner. Green AI certifications can foster cleaner AI development and help implement only environmentally friendly AI practices.
4. Integrate nature with technology for offset projects
Technology enhances nature-based solution development and management by improving project effectiveness through carbon offsetting, bringing wide socioeconomic benefits for local communities.
Today, drones and satellite imagery are more advanced and accessible than ever before, making surveying and monitoring large areas of land more efficient, faster and cost-effective. Using this technology, projects can be monitored for health, enabling faster identification of ecosystem threats and prompt action to protect them. Satellite images and geographical information systems (GIS) make it possible to track the progress of forest restoration projects from miles away. Intelligent mapping software can even identify various types of trees by differentiating the pigment of green in image pixels.
Climate modelling tools such as Climate Scenario Analysis and Climate Risk Assessments can also be used to identify risks to important nature-based solutions to enable early action to protect against or prevent degradation. Many nature-based solutions are complex and fragile ecosystems, vulnerable to climate change. For example, nature-based “blue carbon” solutions like mangroves can sequester large amounts of carbon if protected and restored. However, should they be allowed to deteriorate due to rising sea temperatures, they will release the embedded carbon held in their soils.
5. Drive digital collaboration
Digitization can act as a lever to drive long-term decarbonization action for your organization, but sharing technologies with your clients and partners can accelerate its impact. To ensure successful decarbonization, all stakeholders in the upstream and downstream value chain must work together to find solutions to the technological, market and regulatory challenges. The more diverse, complex and global a supply chain is, the more challenging it can be to access the data required to understand and monitor it.
Technologies such as data analytics, IoT and blockchain are increasingly helping organizations monitor and tackle the Scope 3 impacts across wide, and often complex, value chains. Approximately 80% of any organization’s environmental impact can be attributed to its value chain, which is why broadening access to these technologies should be a priority.
Using digital technologies, organizations can attain net-zero emissions, unlock innovation, develop new skills for workers, decarbonize and generally do more with less. Digitization and decarbonization therefore must move forward together to ensure that digitization serves as a catalyst for change in the future, including tackling emissions and mitigating climate-related risks, as well as building a safer, fairer and more sustainable world for all.