Why digitization is our best chance to save the planet
- To defeat the climate crisis and mitigate its impacts, we must unleash the power of digitalization.
- Digital technology could provide a fifth of the emissions reductions we need to reach net zero by 2050.
- Here are three principles to follow as we accelerate the digital revolution.
Fortunately, climate change is now a major issue. Businesses, policy makers and the public already know the necessity (and cost) of green economies, the importance of protecting biodiversity and the fact that business as usual is unsustainable.
The question is what do we do with it. And while there are many ways to fight climate change, they often boil down to one word: reduce.
Makes sense. We should reduce the amounts of fossil fuels we burn. We should reduce deforestation. We should reduce the amount of waste we produce.
But not all discounts are equal.
The degrowth movement, for example, argues that successful climate action requires not prioritizing economic growth. This would lead to reductions, for sure – reductions in the standard of living, in the provision of health care and in people’s ability to earn wages. Degrowth may have romantic appeal, but it is neither practical nor realistic, especially in the midst of a global cost of living crisis.
Instead, we should focus more on “more”. We should strive to make renewable energy more efficient, industry more productive, policy-making more urgent and business more transparent.
This positive vision depends on a specific “plus”: more digitization.
There is no green without digital. This is the ultimate activation process. As well as becoming greener – studies suggest 5G networks are up to 90% more energy efficient per unit of traffic than traditional 4G networks, for example – digitalization is also enabling huge environmental gains in other areas. sectors.
Recent estimates from the World Economic Forum and Accenture suggest that digital technologies could provide up to a fifth of all reductions needed to meet 2050 net zero targets for energy, materials and mobility [ADD LINK]. And that’s not to mention other sectors such as logistics and manufacturing.
1. Power Generation
Today’s largest offshore wind turbines are more than twice as high as those installed just five years ago.
But the larger the turbine, the further it needs to be from the sea and the more complicated the maintenance process.
Digitization can offer a range of solutions. For example, covering even the largest wind farms with a single private wireless network can unlock solutions such as predictive maintenance, repair analysis drones, and augmented reality engineering. As a result, engineers sail fewer trips and more turbines can be maintained at peak power.
Digitalization also makes other forms of energy production more efficient. For example, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are making “tracker” solar panels, which follow the sun during the day, up to 45% more productive than static panels.
In addition to making it easier to integrate renewables into the grid, fully digitized, AI-driven energy systems can identify who needs energy, when they need it, and deliver it at the lowest possible cost.
Such digitization will allow the integration of virtually unlimited renewable energies into the grid, as variations in production can be compensated instantaneously either by other energy sources or by adjusting demand.
A small-scale example is Nokia’s project with Siemens and A1, creating an ultra-efficient microgrid for the Siemens corporate campus in Vienna. The microgrid meets the energy needs of the campus through the generation of wind and solar energy on site. This reduces reliance on offsite energy and reduces on-campus carbon emissions by approximately 100 tonnes per year in 2021, with double that figure projected for this year. [ADD LINK]
2. Digital agriculture
The UN predicts that farms will have to produce 70% more food, on 5% more land, by 2050. Digitalization can make this possible.
The classic example is burying sensors in the ground, ensuring that crops receive exactly the right amount of water and fertilizer.
It’s valuable, but it’s not the end of the story.
Satellites and drones can use biomass-sensitive imagery to assess the health of large areas of crops. Connected farm machinery can combine this data with information on soil conditions, weather forecasts and seed availability to keep farms running at peak efficiency.
Digitizing 15-25% of global agriculture in this way could increase global production by 300 million metric tons by 2030 and reduce water consumption by up to 150 billion cubic meters each year.
One problem, as a recent EY study suggests, is that farmers may be reluctant to share data. It’s a tricky question. Almost every industry and institution is currently struggling with a trust deficit.
Digitization alone cannot solve this problem, but digitizers can do their part by recognizing the importance of reliability and security, and working with trusted partners while deploying digitization.
Global net zero commitments from businesses and governments are expected to reduce GHG emissions by 7.5% by 2030 – we need 55% to meet global targets. Closing this gap will require reconnecting high-emitting sectors around efficiency, circularity and sustainability.
Research from the World Economic Forum’s Digital Transformation Initiative and Accenture estimates that digital technologies, if scaled, can deliver up to 20% of the reductions we need by 2050 in three high-emitting industries: energy, materials and mobility. Depending on how quickly digital technologies are adopted, these industries can achieve between 4 and 10% reduction in emissions by 2030.
Four different digital technology clusters can work together to decarbonize business operations and value chains:
1. Fundamental technologies such as big data analytics
2. Decision Support Technologies like AI/Machine Learning and Digital Twins
3. Enabling technologies such as cloud, 5G, blockchain and augmented reality
4. Sensing and control technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), drones and automation
To inspire more adoption and collaboration, the Forum is also curating an inventory of leading examples of partner companies that have implemented digital technologies to reduce their carbon footprint and drive economic growth.
If your organization is interested in embracing digital technologies for climate action, join the Forum’s cross-sector digital transformation community.
What is the next step in digitization?
We know the will exists to accelerate this process. Watch the First Movers Coalition – a public-private partnership involving the World Economic Forum, Nokia and other contributors who pledge to buy new sustainable technologies.
Discussions on digitization here in Davos should keep three principles in mind:
1. The only realistic path to net zero involves mobilizing market forces.
The EU created the first-ever emissions trading system. Between 2005 and 2020, the emissions covered by the system fell by more than 40%.
We can replicate this elsewhere.
2. Radio Spectrum Issues.
Almost all wireless telecommunications require some radio spectrum to operate. Without it, none of the use cases mentioned here would be possible.
The problem is that it is a limited resource. Ultimately, governments control who has access to what spectrum. They should release affordable new spectrum across low, mid, high and ultra-high band ranges – and companies and other stakeholders should continue to press them to do so.
3. Companies have a responsibility to do the right thing.
Play by the rules, behave ethically and build trust.
In other words, making technology and technology companies a force for good.
Be proactive. Pursue your waste and emissions goals with the same innovative attitude you use for any business-critical issue.
And finally, digitize. Hurry up. Get a head start. The planet is counting on you.