Climate crisis: how digital technology can help

Each month, we will highlight a recent development, initiative or trend in the technology and SDGs landscape. In this month’s story, we focus on how digital technology can help in climate crises.

This September, millions of people worldwide took to the streets demanding urgent and scaled action on the climate crisis. The leaders of 65 countries committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. And more than 100 business leaders promised concrete actions to keep global warming within 2 degrees Celsius. “But we have a long way to go,” said the UN Secretary-General. With the UN General Assembly at an end and a short decade remaining before 2030, governments, businesses and civil society must now deliver their promises and go further.

Digital technologies can play an important part in tackling the climate emergency, provided they are designed and deployed with the kind of positive societal impact that the Sustainable Development Goals outline at their heart. A new paper by 2030Vision partner GeSI in partnership with Deloitte, calls on ICT companies to show leadership within their sector and to work closely with key partners that deploy these technologies to achieve this progress, including on SDG 13 Climate Action. In this article, we explore ways that ICT companies are already deploying and partnering around digital technologies to tackle the climate emergency.

Digital technology is cutting emissions

GeSI and Deloitte’s Digital with Purpose report suggests that digital technologies can help combat climate change through reducing emissions, strengthening resilience to climate related natural hazards, and improving our capacity to act. The authors estimate that ICT can reduce GHG emissions contributing to climate change by 1.34Gt versus a business as usual scenario by 2030. And within the ICT sector, digital technologies could enable reductions in carbon emissions equivalent to almost seven times the amount that emissions of the ICT sector will grow by 2030.

The report finds that automating and maximizing the efficiency of processes in agriculture, industry and manufacturing could make a large contribution to this effort. They share the example of telecommunications company AT&T working with manufacturing company Emerson. By providing connectivity, AT&T has provided has helped them to optimize the performance of Emerson’s industrial food grinders that convert commercial food waste into electricity or heat and fertilizer. This has helped not only to reduce the GHG emissions associated with food waste in landfills, but also to produce low carbon energy. Real time data is additionally presented in a dashboard to customers, enabled by digital technology, to help them to optimize their waste pick-up process also.

Artificial intelligence to protect forests and forecast wildfires

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to both help us understand and accelerate progress towards the SDG targets including those on climate action. Some estimate that AI could help us reduce global GHG emissions by 4% in 2030, equivalent to the combined annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan in 2030.

Through its AI for Earth scheme, 2030Vision partner Microsoft is helping to realize this goal by providing organizations working on climate change access to their powerful suite of AI and cloud tools.

For instance, Terrafuse has partnered with Microsoft to create sophisticated models, built on Microsoft’s cloud computing service Azure, to help people mitigate against the climate induced risk of wildfires. The company is using historical fire data, existing physical simulations and real-time satellite observations to forecast wildfire risk at a hyperlocal level.

SilviaTerra meanwhile is combining satellite imagery with machine learning to inventory forests more precisely while cutting the manual labour required, also enabled by Microsoft Azure. The data collected through their technology can help conservationists and landowners manage and understand forests, including determining climate impacts, improving species habitats or promoting sustainable harvesting.

Corporate commitments to net-zero emissions

GHG emissions associated with the ICT sector’s use of energy are estimated to increase by 11% by 2030. So to keep global warming well below 2 degrees, ICT companies must make strong commitments to reducing their own emissions.

One way leading companies are taking action is by committing to 100% renewable energy. Microsoft, Deutsche Telecom and Lyft are among a group of leading ICT companies who have joined RE100, a global initiative that brings together businesses who are committed to using 100% renewable energy.

And some leading companies are going further still. In addition to joining RE100, avoiding emissions by siting their facilities on clean electricity grids, and continuously improving the energy efficiency of their offices and data centers, software company and 2030Vision partner Salesforce has co-founded the B Team’s Net-Zero by 2050 team. This leadership group of CEOs and companies have each committed to producing a roadmap detailing how they will implement a science-based target to reduce their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions to keep warming below 1.5°C by 2050. Through joining the Net-Zero by 2050 team, companies such as Salesforce also promise to advocate for policies that accelerate a just transition to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.

Collective action is the way forward

These kinds of collaborations will be key to driving progress on climate change and the SDGs as a whole. The examples shared through this article demonstrate that momentum is building in the ICT sector around tackling the climate crisis. However, to achieve the level of progress we need on SDG13 Climate Action, there can be little doubt that collective efforts will need to be ramped up and accelerated by 2030.

To this end, the Digital with a Purpose report calls on the ICT sector to be more inclusive, ambitious, transparent on their impacts, and to integrate a common purpose based on the SDGs into their work. Finally, it offers a set of universal commitments for all organizations and individuals and suggests that the ICT sector can take a strong lead.

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