In December 2020 the Royal Society launched the report Digital technology and the planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero, leveraging novel research to demonstrate the potential for technology to aid in combatting the climate crisis and the ever-growing carbon footprint of the ICT sector. The report was developed through the input of a broad range of stakeholders the guidance of a multidisciplinary expert group chaired by Sir Andy Hopper FRS, and commissioned research. The result was a series of recommendations for UK government, the tech sector and third sector organisations aimed at maximising the efficacy of data-driven solutions in the net zero transition.
Much has changed since late 2020, though there is work to be done to narrow the gap between today’s climate regime and reaching true net zero. In this policy review piece, we consider how our continued work with the UK Government, namely the National Data Strategy implementation team, is helping lay the foundation for a data-driven net zero transition in the UK.
New initiatives of note
Data and digital technology for sustainability is an area of increasing attention on the global stage. The United Nations report A world that counts was followed by the United Nations Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability in early 2021, part of the broader response to the Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation. Meanwhile, the Global Partnership for Artificial Intelligence has launched a responsible artificial intelligence strategy for the environment, publishing recommendations for government action in collaboration with Climate Change AI and the Centre for AI and Climate.
Cultural reluctances to collect, use and share data for the good of the planet remain salient barriers. Companies may be motivated to keep data ‘locked down’ for commercial use, particularly where data is perceived to have real or potential value. The UK’s Energy Digitalisation Taskforce (EDiT) has recognised some of these challenges with the recommendation to presume energy data as open. By November last year, Ofgem guidance met this proposal by advising that Licensees “Treat all Data Assets, their associated Metadata and Software Scripts used to process Data Assets as Presumed Open”. We hope to see this important ‘data default’ initiate a wider shift change in the culture of data sharing and use in sectors critical to net zero.
International arrangements to underpin applications and services helping achieve net zero
We estimate in our 2020 report that existing digital technologies alone could help reduce UK emissions as much as 15% by 2030, and have recommended that the tech sector lead by example in emissions transparency. Growing pressure from consumers is now leading tech companies to monitor their Environment, Social and Governance (or ESG) performance, using evidence-based metrics and timeframes in reaching carbon neutrality. The number of tech companies publishing sustainability reports, monitoring ESG risks and opportunities grew by 57% between 2011 and 2021.
We are pleased to see that both ‘green tech’ (ICT with reduced environmental impacts), as well as ‘tech for green’ (technology that enables a data-driven approach to sustainability), are distinct areas of interest for national governments at home and abroad. These were key themes in our panel at the 2021 HMT Future Tech Forum, for which we co-convened a session chaired by Permanent Secretary for DCMS Sarah Healey.
International arrangements for data sharing will be required to underpin the services and applications needed for reaching net zero. A key part of this are the UN Conference on Climate Change meetings, most recently held in Glasgow (COP26), for which the Society contributed a set of 12 briefings on critical priority areas for action. While some progress was made at COP26, greater investment in research and innovation will be essential to deliver decarbonisation: “today's tech alone cannot deliver the agreed net zero targets.”
In November 2021 a select committee at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched an inquiry on Net Zero Governance, eliciting feedback on what governance arrangements need to be in place to support net zero targets. We responded, emphasising the structural change envisioned in our third recommendation: that the UK Government establish a taskforce to connect and amplify cross-departmental and cross-sector initiatives on the digitalisation of the net zero transition.
A national data strategy for net zero
We are especially pleased to see that the National Data Strategy Forum identify Net Zero as one of five priority pillars in National Data Strategy activities. To carry this objective forward, the Society co-convened a workshop with the National Data Strategy Forum on Data for Net Zero in January 2022.
The session was chaired by Professor Dame Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge DBE FREng FRS and panellists included Neil Lawrence, DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning at the University of Cambridge; Sarah Hayes, CReDo Project Lead, National Digital Twin Programme; Laura Sandys, Chair of the UK Government’s Energy Digitalisation Taskforce; and Gavin Starks, Founder of Icebreaker One.
Participants highlighted three primary areas for the National Data Strategy Implementation Team to focus their attention:
- Where they exist, good data-sharing examples should be highlighted and shared; to this end, government should lead by example, starting with a stock-take of available data sets in various departments.
- Synthetic data could be useful in proof-of-concept testing in lieu of real data, which may be personal or commercially sensitive.
- More pathfinder projects with specific objectives in the climate domain would enable government and academia to work together on intersectional challenges.
- The public must see the benefit of data use for Net Zero (such as how data can drive efficiencies and lower costs). At the same time, a general culture of open data must be fostered: it is rarely predictable whether a data set may be useful in other contexts, or in meeting new challenges.
- A long-term view reveals the cost of not sharing data. This should be communicated more clearly as a clear incentive in sharing data for Net Zero.
- New incentive structures and business models must be harnessed in data-enabled and digitalised markets, as consumer behaviour is dynamic, interactive and pivoting (for example, customers can now deliver value to the energy grid).
- Consumers must feel protected before they will be motivated to share data for Net Zero aims. The public should be brought into regulation for relevant technologies, rather than subject to extensive consent mechanisms on an individual basis.
- Foundational work must be done before data sharing is normalised; this includes setting standards. In energy data, for example, an ‘HTML’ is required for interoperability, as well as a ‘digital spine’ to communicate and interact with the whole system.
- Data for Net Zero could be broken down into set objectives (eg, for 2022, 2025, 2030); this would enable success through manageable, actionable targets.
- Investment in SMEs could enable greater, and safer, data sharing and storage.
- Inconsistent ESG standards across sectors could be addressed, as these have implications for what constitutes Net Zero data, and thus data sharing for Net Zero.
- Regulators must adapt to digitalised and data-enabled markets, accepting more accurate and precise database solutions (for example, using behavioural modelling to refine customer personas).
Well governed data access and use: A net-zero transition that works for everyone
One of our aims for Digital technology and the planet was to consider wider societal implications of data sharing and data access. We stated that the development of data-driven technologies must be supported by well governed access to data, which means addressing concerns around privacy, surveillance and representation. This is particularly relevant where data is combined from a wider range of sources, providing insights around granular scales—including individuals’ habits.
We are looking forward to furthering this conversation by hosting a panel during SciDataCon, convened as part of CODATA’s International Data Week this June, where Sir Andy Hopper FRS will chair a session on data for international environmental monitoring, digital twins of environmental systems, and emerging applications of satellite imagery. The discussion will be centred on a key theme in our report, a control loop for the protection of the planet, which proposes the benefits of a hypothetical linked-up, global programme of monitoring environmental and social systems to allow for reaction and course-correction in real- or near-time.
The Royal Society’s commitment to using science for the benefit of humanity underpins the Society’s data policy work. Beyond Digital Technology and the planet, our data policy team are delivering new programmes that promote the use of data and technology for wider benefit. We recently considered, for example, how The online information environment is shaping the way people access and are influenced by information in the digital age, which has implications for how people receive and react to information about climate change. We are also updating our work on Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs), which investigates how a new set of tools and approaches can bolster the responsible use of data—including the personal, commercial, industrial and population-scale data required for monitoring and reaching net zero.
As we stated in Digital technology and the planet, a data-driven net zero transition must work for everyone; we remain distant from that goal. However, we continue to collaborate with stakeholders across sectors to realise this ambition and will carry these themes forward in adjacent policy programming, promoting the use of data and digital technology for the benefit of humanity and the planet.