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Report highlights role of technology in meeting net-zero targets

A report published by the UK Royal Society – the long-established national science academy – outlines how digital technology can be used to provide a third of the carbon emission reductions required to meet net-zero targets. The report, published in December, delivers a plan for maximising data and digital technologies’ role in building a low carbon economy and a green recovery from Covid-19.

The report, Digital Technology and the Planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero, estimates that digital technology’s contribution to global emissions range from 1.4% to 5.9%. To combat this, it identifies four key areas where digital technologies such as smart meters, supercomputers, weather modelling and machine learning would help secure a transition to a low carbon future.

  1. The creation of a trusted data infrastructure for net zero by establishing a national and international framework for collecting, sharing and using data would allow a taskforce to identify priorities across sectors. Working with tech companies, the taskforce would ensure that systems can be scrutinised and made secure. The resulting transparency would enhance trust to the mutual benefit of the industry and the communities it serves.

  2. The government must insist on tech companies sharing data on the full extent of their emissions – especially from data centres. The tech companies should also be encouraged to schedule their computing activities to times when renewable power supplies are at a peak. It is also recommended that regulators like the Financial Conduct Authority develop guidance on the energy proportionality of technologies such as cryptocurrencies which, the report says, waste “huge amounts of energy”.

  3. The skills required for a digital and net zero economy which will help build a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic should be prioritised. Chairing the COP26 climate summit in December offers the UK a chance to champion international commitment to establish the digital infrastructure of the net zero transition.

  4. Government policies, research funding frameworks and initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) – which has a vast budget at its disposal – to reflect the net zero imperative.

To make the report applicable to readers outside the technology industry, one section recommends three simple actions which can be undertaken by individuals:

  • Using devices – phones, laptops, tablets, smart TVs, etc. – for longer: Embodied emissions for a mobile phone kept for two years represent about half of all emissions it will generate during a lifetime. Keeping a phone for twice as long will therefore significantly reduce emissions.

  • Recycling old devices will also help to reduce resource use and electronic waste. The report describes keeping an old mobile phone in a drawer as a form of landfill and points out that some component parts are valuable and can be reused for new devices.

  • Streaming responsibly: Watching TV shows or films in 4K or Ultra High Definition (UHD) for an hour generates roughly eight times more emissions than watching it in with Standard Definition (SD). Furthermore turning off the video relay for Youtube users who are only listening to the content could save between 1% and 5% of the service’s total emissions.

The practical advice offered by the report in addition to the strategic policy recommendations contribute to a valuable document which deserves a wider platform than it is likely to receive.


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