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Griffin on Tech: Going digital for the planet

Peter Griffin, Editor. 04 November 2022, 1:41 pm

Climate diplomats, scientists and activists have descended on Cairo for COP27, the annual climate conference which kicks off this weekend.

The extreme weather events that have caused mayhem in many parts of the world will no doubt focus the discussion, which will centre around the need to limit climate change to 1.5°C of warming to avoid the worst impacts on the planet.

But those sitting in the airconditioned conference rooms of COP27 know we are already set to blow past that 1.5°C threshold. At our current rate of emissions growth, we’ll be lucky to contain warming to 2.5 degrees, according to scientists. That’s a grim prospect for everyone.

Our Climate Change ambassador Kay Harrison is in Cairo and well understands the need to get moving on implementing climate mitigation efforts.

"We've got to stop these negotiators talking about the future and targets and plans and talkfests and start talking about what implementation looks like," she told RNZ.

One area we can make significant inroads in is using existing digital technologies to reduce emissions in transport, industry and agriculture. A study undertaken by sustainability consultancy thinkstep anz and commissioned by Spark estimates that technology uptake could “support annual emissions reductions of 7.2 Mt (megatonnes) by 2030 – equivalent to 42% of the reductions required to meet Aotearoa’s carbon budget targets”.

Screenshot 2022-11-04 at 8.05.23 AM.png

Source: thinkstep anz

Where would the savings come from? Three key areas:

Transport 2.9Mt: Key actions include reducing transport emissions by having a million New Zealanders hybrid working, splitting their time equally between home and the workplace (1.5Mt reduction). Accelerating EV uptake in rural areas by improving charging infrastructure (0.41Mt) and improving business fleet and freight logistics (0.67Mt).

Energy and Industry 2.4Mt: Key actions include using smart building technology to reduce residential and commercial building energy consumption (0.99Mt), accelerating uptake of e-health, e-learning and e-commerce (0.61Mt) and ramping up process automation and optimisation in industry (0.53Mt).

Agriculture 1.9Mt: Enabling precision agriculture to reduce fertiliser use (1.12Mt), using technology to deploy a targeted nitrous oxide inhibitor (0.57Mt) and using robotics and smart sensors on farms to improving animal health and productivity.

All of the above can be done with existing technologies. But it will clearly involve major investment in new systems and processes across those three areas of the economy to achieve those savings by 2030. It's unclear from the report the extent to which, for instance farmers would deploy precision agriculture systems by 2030, to achieve those emissions reductions.

But even if we can only realistically achieve 20% of our 2030 reduction target through deploying digital technologies, it would make our net zero 2050 goal all the more realistic. There are also non-climate related benefits in doing so, namely improving our lagging productivity, which could result in better financial sustainability and international competitiveness for many firms.

That’s the opportunity for the tech sector - to produce the software, hardware and services that will help accelerate that transition to a low-carbon future. But what of the tech sector itself and its carbon footprint?

Cloud isn't our saviour

Spark, to its credit, hasn’t pointed to the cloud as being a big part of the answer to cutting emissions from IT operations. While thinkstep anz estimates that moving from on-premises equipment to cloud platforms can save 0.44Mt of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2030, it hasn’t included them in its total because those are one-off savings that aren’t replicated on an ongoing basis.

Data centres and data transmission networks account for 0.6% of global emissions, with total sector emissions covering infrastructure through to use of electronic devices estimated to account for 1.8% - 3.9% of global emissions. Spark for its part claims its scope 1 and scope 2 emissions account for 0.02% of national emissions in 2022.

The tech sector has an easier time decarbonising itself than other parts of the economy - agriculture in particular. But it has oversized potential to help other industries boost their carbon-cutting potential. That’s not only good for efforts to tackle climate change, but done properly can make sound business sense as well.


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