Digital technology vital to unlocking net-zero transition, Royal Society report finds

03 December 2020

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 (PDF) sets a roadmap for maximising data and digital technologies’ role in building a low carbon economy and a green recovery from COVID-19.

The UK has a key role to play in this digital-led green transition, as host of the UN COP26 climate conference in 2021 and a global leader in fields like machine learning.

Tech companies must also 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% to 5.9%, 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,” said chair of the report’s working group, Professor Andy Hopper FREng FRS, Vice President of the Royal Society and Professor of Computer Technology, University of Cambridge.

“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.”  

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 

  • Establish national and international frameworks for collecting, sharing and using data for net zero applications.
  • Set up a taskforce for digitalisation of the net zero transition, to identify priorities across sectors and work with tech companies to ensure systems can be scrutinised, are secure, and benefit communities.

Optimising our digital carbon footprint

  • Government should ensure tech companies share publicly data about the full scope of their emissions, in particular from data centres.
  • The tech sector should schedule computing activities for times of peak renewable supply wherever possible.
  • Regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority should develop guidance on the energy proportionality of digital technology, such as Bitcoin.

Establishing a data-enabled net zero economy 

  • Build skills for a digital and net zero economy at all levels as part of the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Use COP26 to champion international commitment on funding, data, skills and computing facilities to establish the digital infrastructure of the net zero transition. 

Setting research and innovation challenges to digitalise the net zero transition 

  • Update UK government policies, research funding frameworks and Industrial Strategy Challenge Funds to reflect the net zero imperative.

Digital systems also enable new business models that work for consumers and companies. 

Trials of “heating as service” let consumers pay a fixed tariff for hours of warmth. Customer satisfaction increased and suppliers were incentivised to provide energy more efficiently, insulate homes or replace gas boilers. 

Data from digital sensors and networks can be used to make increasingly sophisticated “digital twins” of real-world systems, to test and target interventions, or even control them in real-time.

Combining building, energy efficiency, and socioeconomic data, the 3D housing stock project of the Greater London Authority can help target insulation schemes, or the placement of solar panels. Digital twins of wind farms can optimise placement of each turbine to maximise its energy production.

“Digital technology lets us do things differently and it has huge potential to help achieve net zero – if used responsibly,” said Professor Adrian Friday, Professor of Computing and Sustainability, University of Lancaster, and a member of the report working group.

“That means thinking much more carefully about how the entire system impacts on the planet and society. It’s 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’s 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.”