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Policy projects

Digital technology and the planet

16 March 2020

What is the impact of digital technologies on the environment? How can technologies, from AI to new forms of computer hardware, help reduce carbon emissions across industries?

The Royal Society has launched a project on digital technologies and the planet to investigate these questions. This will identify actions the UK can take to play a leading role in data-enabled innovation and the adoption of digital technologies to tackle climate change. 

How can digital technologies be harnessed to tackle climate change?

A 40% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), alongside other greenhouse gases, has led so far to a global average temperature rise of 1°C above pre-industrial levels. To limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C and the negative impact of climate change on people, the net emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases, principally CO2, will have to reach ‘net-zero’ level by around 2050. In the next decade, urgent, ambitious and concerted action is required to deliver rapid reductions in carbon emissions. 

Recent Royal Society policy studies have noted the potential for powerful digital technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), to be applied to address major societal challenges. These studies identified the conditions needed to support the safe and rapid deployment of the technology; the forms of governance of data use needed to create an environment of careful stewardship; and the role that technology can play in helping address governance challenges. Building on this work, over 2020 the Society will investigate how data and digital technologies can be applied to the challenge of reaching net zero. 

This project is informed by a 2019 series of workshops on digital technologies and human transformations, which identified growing concerns about the environmental impact of digital systems, as well as optimism that data and digital technologies might bring innovative solutions to tackle climate change. A workshop held in November 2019 further highlighted a wide range of ways in which data and digital tools can already be applied in different sectors, and how future developments could go even further. It sits alongside the Society’s programme on Energy, environment and climate, which has been investigating how developments in science and technology could reduce human impact on the environment and adapt to a changing climate. 

What is the Digital technologies and the planet project doing?

The Royal Society’s project on digital technologies and the planet will:

  • Investigate the ways in which digital technologies can be mobilised to tackle climate change, both in terms of the development of ‘greener’ digital systems and their application to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Explore pathways for the development of trustworthy digital systems to support efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and the policies that can help advance their development and use.
  • Create a vision for the future of digital technologies deployed in support of reducing carbon emissions.

To this end, the Society is convening a series of conversations and evidence gathering events, involving a range of stakeholders across academia, industry, the third sector and government. We will summarise the evidence and make recommendations in a report to be published in Autumn 2020.

To hear more on this topic from members of our Working Group and other experts, take a look at the Society’s blog

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