The world needs to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by almost half this decade to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as recommended by climate scientists, the United Nation warns. As companies wrestle with how best to meet their net-zero targets, technology presents an important and powerful tool to determine which approaches will make the greatest impact.
“Technology plays a key role in untangling some of those challenges and helping organizations achieve net-zero,” says Salma Bakr, product lead at the sustainability software company FigBytes.
Several mitigation options costing less than $100 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent could reduce global emissions by at least half by 2030 compared to 2019, according to the sixth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Examples include using more renewable power generated from sources like solar and wind, transitioning to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and using more energy-efficient technologies.
That’s good news for the more than 90 percent of business leaders who say they prioritize long-term decarbonization. “Companies play a crucial role in tackling climate change and benefit from decarbonization by reducing risks like extreme weather events and policy changes,” Bakr says. “In the long run, and as more low-carbon solutions are adopted and become more affordable, decarbonizing a business saves operational costs and enhances efficiency, for example, where you pay lower bills for your energy and waste.”
In the context of decarbonizing businesses, technology comes under two categories, Bakr explains: digital technologies that enable a net-zero future, and physical technologies for climate mitigation or adaptation.
These technologies complement each other in support of net-zero targets. For example, digital technologies enable efficient and scalable processing of climate data, allowing for more informed problem detection and decision-making. They also allow companies to evaluate multiple decarbonization solutions virtually and chart the best path forward, Bakr says. Together, digital technologies have the potential to reduce emissions by up to 20 percent by 2050 if scaled and adopted in high-emitting sectors like energy, materials and mobility, according to the World Economic Forum.
Physical technologies, on the other hand, enable climate mitigation and adaptation. The IPCC's sixth assessment report shows that several of these technologies have high potential for GHG reduction at scale. For climate mitigation, this includes solar and wind power, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, and fuel-efficient vehicles. For climate adaptation, a key example is building resilient power systems which provide a diverse and stable energy supply.
Digital technologies enhance decarbonization efforts in multiple ways, Bakr says. Even more good news: Organizations of all sizes across every industry already use many of these digital tools to ease their progress toward strategic goals — making it fairly seamless to digitize their approach to climate action as well.
For example, most businesses use foundational technologies to support daily tasks of measurement, reporting, and basic analytics for data-driven insights. Examples include enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, and supply chain tracking systems.
“This means organizations don’t have to start from scratch,” Bakr says. “For example, they can add sustainability solutions ‘on top’ of their existing systems.”
Organizations can also use decision-making technologies as part of the daily course of doing business, where machine learning can be leveraged, for example, to imitate how humans learn and ingest new data, which can improve decision-making accuracy, Bakr says. Such technologies also allow organizations to use historical data to forecast future events, or provide actionable recommendations to inform actions around decarbonization.
Another group of digital technologies increasingly embraced on the decarbonization journey are sensing and control technologies. These range from automation, robotics and drones to enhanced connectivity through the Internet of Things. By deploying these technologies, companies can more easily collect data from physical systems and more accurately control things like office temperature, humidity and lighting based on occupancy.
Yet another category are enabling technologies that support organizations to operate more efficiently. Examples include cloud computing and mobile communication, which allow organizations to scale their resources on-demand.
“Tracking progress is crucial,” in pursuit of climate goals, “as net-zero is all about beating the clock and making progress,” Bakr says. “That’s why climate action needs climate accounting first, including a comprehensive emissions inventory. And the main challenge in establishing an emissions inventory is a data problem: data collection, consolidation, validation, verification and so on.”
This is where technology is an asset, she explains. A climate accounting solution collects, validates and verifies activity data, and conducts basic emissions modeling, reporting and analytics. Making that solution cloud-hosted “helps scale data collection, cross-collaboration across teams and geographies, and stakeholder engagement, where you can collect data from anywhere in the world and scale your computations as needed,” Bakr says.
Climate accounting systems can be integrated with decision-making technologies such as machine learning to augment the intelligence of an organization’s analytics, for example, to ensure the right emission factors are applied to calculate emissions data, she adds.
Companies and organizations that have set science-based targets should also keep watch on the “Progress Framework" under development by the Science Based Targets initiative, Bakr advises. It aims to advance the measurement, reporting and verification of science-based targets, providing clear and standardized expectations and guidance on how to measure, report and verify climate action progress against those targets.
This framework will support transparency and integrity by holding companies and financial institutions accountable for their climate targets. Development is expected to be completed at the 2023 U.N. Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP28) in Dubai in December.
After the initial steps of streamlining a baseline emissions inventory and setting net-zero targets, an important but often challenging part of the decarbonization journey is the ability to forecast future emissions scenarios and understand associated risks and opportunities. “Many organizations find challenges in defining and analyzing net-zero scenarios,” Bakr says. “It’s a tricky and complicated process.”
But organizations can overcome that challenge by better understanding what is involved in a future climate scenario, she advises. “Scenarios should challenge business-as-usual assumptions about the future, but also illustrate a credible story comprising possible and consistent future events. Scenarios should also be relevant, meaning they explore future insights relating to the various implications of climate-related risks and opportunities. They should also be distinctive by exploring different permutations and combinations of key factors impacting future developments to generate multiple decarbonization alternatives for the organization to select from.”
Again, an organization can turn to technology to do this. “A solid climate accounting solution, coupled with decision-making capabilities, can help an organization forecast and visualize the future emissions associated with various scenarios based on the various data inputs considered,” Bakr says.
At the same time, technology isn’t a panacea, and it also has its own footprint to consider. “As we consider various technologies in the transition to net-zero, we need to also understand that those digital and physical technologies do produce emissions in one way or another,” she adds. “We need to take a systemic approach to tackling emissions reduction and stay on top of the latest research and development efforts.”
Taking action is the only option, Bakr points out. “The journey to net-zero is bumpy but inevitable,” she says. Organizations can set themselves up for success with a solid climate action strategy that aligns net-zero targets with the latest climate science, and leverages technology to speed up the transition.
“This will make the net-zero journey as efficient, effective and consistent as possible,” she says. Crucially, the goal should be to invest in net-zero innovation that extends beyond any single organization’s value chain: “Focus on bold reductions, first and foremost. And if your progress strays, make sure you realign by identifying more reduction potentials.”
This article series is sponsored by FigBytes and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: Anders J/Unsplash
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.