The role of digitisation in building back better

Telecommunications tower on Oiz mountain top

Technology will play a key role in any recovery efforts, said Steve Martineau, COP26 High Level Climate Action Champions Lead for Mobile and ICT at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “The future will be digital,” he told the Carbon Trust’s Corporate Sustainability Summit recently. “The last nine months have shown the importance of digital technologies.”

Mark Evans, Chief Executive of O2, agreed, saying that “we have to leverage the ingenuities and capabilities of our business to help us reset our course and deliver a sustainable, low carbon future”.

“Our journey to net zero can help other businesses do the same,” he added. “But any connectivity path to net zero must start with tackling the emissions of the industry.”

The tech sector is an increasingly large consumer of energy, and it does need to reduce its emissions by using more renewable energy, (which will account for 80% of the sector’s decarbonisation efforts), and improving efficiency, but its contribution to the economy outweighs its impacts, Martineau pointed out. “The sector needs to reduce emissions as much as possible, but it also needs to leverage its power to deliver emissions reductions for the rest of the economy,” he said. “But it has the power to help other sectors reduce emissions by multiples of its own emissions.”

“The mobile phone market makes up almost 5% of GDP, but it is responsible for much less than 1% of global emissions.”

Driver of value

A mobile phone is now a travel ticket, a key, an alarm clock, a torch and a camera. As explained by Martineau, “it allows us to share products and reduce food waste, do medical consultations by video call and work remotely better than ever before. Transport emissions are being reduced by the switch away from commuting towards teleworking and real-time information delivered through mobile phones. Trends like these globally are estimated to be reducing emissions equivalent to 2bn tonnes of CO2e, about the size of Russia’s emissions.”

Mobile and digital connectivity can help businesses of all shapes and sizes to improve their productivity and efficiency through flexible working, smart meters and the Internet of Things, Evans added. “5G networks will be a critical part of a low carbon future,” he said. “Solutions powered by advanced connectivity are set to reduce up to 269Mt of carbon by 2025. It’s a clear demonstration of the pivotal role this sector can play in a greener future.”

These are all forms of value creation for the global economy that can be delivered with little or no extra emissions, Martineau stated. “We can grow services like this while on a path of falling emissions.” 

Supply chains remain a challenge

Decarbonising the supply chain will be much more difficult. ICT supply chains are huge, with devices containing hundreds of separate components, all provided by different suppliers across the world. These suppliers are often based in parts of the world where access to renewable energy is limited, which is leading companies such as Apple to partner with its suppliers to install clean power facilities. 

Another key requirement is to develop circular economy solutions for ICT equipment, which can often be difficult to recycle because of their complexity. “Devices need to last longer and be reused more,” Martineau said. 

Digital energy is here to stay

As the vision for a net zero world develops, Lei Zhang, Founder and Chief Executive of Envision Group asked, “how are we going to power the planet? The world needs a new coal, a new gas, a new oil and a new grid”.

Wind and solar are achieving parity with coal, while battery storage is replacing many of the uses of gas in the power system and hydrogen and batteries are usurping oil, he added. Meanwhile, the distributed, intermittent demand and very frequent charging patterns of millions of electric vehicles, coupled to intermittent supply from renewable sources mean that the world needs a new grid. “It’s about connectivity and balancing. The old grid can’t handle it,” he pointed out.

The new grid will be an ‘AIoT grid’ Lei added, that uses artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), improved weather forecasting  and big data analytics to synchronise power supply and demand better and allow the creation of virtual power plants. He highlighted the work his company is doing with building owners in Singapore, where 40% of energy demand comes from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

“This can become a very effective flexible load, with every HVAC system becoming an automated energy trader, buying energy when demand is lower and selling flexibility at peak times,” he added. 

Digital technology has already transformed the economy, Evans stressed. “The pace of change is only likely to accelerate. Technology must be seen as pivotal to drive sustainable solutions.”

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