Royal Society calls for data-led net-zero transition

The Royal Society has published a report which identifies how the UK can play a leading role in tackling climate change through a data-led transition supported by the adoption of digital technologies.

 While data-enabled technologies such as machine learning have boosted efficiency in some sectors, contributing to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, they also have a significant environmental cost. These costs range from mineral extraction to the huge energy consumption associated with computing.

The report estimates that digital technology contributes between 1.4 and 5.9 per cent of global emissions.

“Under the right conditions, digital technologies could optimise and reduce their own footprint and bring even more transformative changes […] they can help promote a shift towards low-carbon ways of living and working,” the report [PDF] said.

These technologies – such as smart meters, supercomputers, weather modelling, and machine learning – can help drive down individual and systems-wide carbon emissions over the next decade, while also advancing research and innovation into new solutions to the net-zero challenge.

In July 2019, Parliament approved a law enshrining the UK’s commitment to reaching net-zero carbon emissions. The target will require the UK bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, compared with the previous target of an 80 per cent reduction from 1990.

The Royal Society warned that technology alone will not achieve this transition, and wider policies will be vital.

It advised that the transition should be data-led, with arrangements put in place to establish “critical digital infrastructures for net-zero” which are transparent, robust, span the entire economy, and work for everyone.

“Data, in conjunction with technologies such as artificial intelligence and digital twins, should be at the heart of the net-zero transition,” the report said. “Achieving the promise of this data-led net-zero transition will require an ambitious, collaborative, and challenge-led research and innovation effort.”

Digital systems – from ground sensors to satellites – generate valuable data which enable emissions monitoring and understanding of climate trends and intervention impacts. These data, combined with data from across sectors, can power data-driven systems and services with the potential to cut emissions across the economy.

The report also advises greater monitoring and scrutiny of the energy consumption and emissions associated with digital technologies (particularly associated with the running of data centres), which will require relevant data to be made widely available by tech companies.

New digital technologies deployed in pursuit of net-zero must be “energy-proportionate”, bringing about benefits which outweigh their own greenhouse gas emissions. Regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority have a role to play in developing guidance on the energy proportionality of technologies such as cryptocurrencies, which “[waste] huge amounts of energy”.

With the right incentives, applications of digital technologies could bring about new services and business models, which allow a shift away from resource consumption and “carbon-intensive wealth creation”, it said.

“There are many routes to net-zero but digital technology has a central role to play, no matter what sector of the country you look at,” said Professor Andy Hopper, vice president of the Royal Society. “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 emissions 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.”