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Royal Society Report: Digital tech and the planet

Landmark report points to significant opportunities from climate tech but highlights several challenges

new report by the Royal Society, following a year of engagement with world leading academic and industry experts, have concluded that digital technologies, whilst “just one part of the solution, is absolutely central to the net zero future we must build.”

Drawing from figures techUK published in September, the Royal Society say that digital technologies from smart meters to supercomputers, weather modelling to AI, could deliver almost a third of the carbon emission reductions required by 2030. The role of digital in underpinning new and essential business models was also highlighted, as was the tremendous potential of digital twins.

The report outlines a series of recommendations to maximise the potential of data and digital technologies’ role in building a low carbon economy and a green one, post COVID.

Many complements or mirror those techUK set out earlier this year: the need for a data-driven net zero transition; the need for updated policies, research funding frameworks and innovation challenges to reflect the net zero imperative; and a call for a taskforce for digitalisation of the net zero transition. The chapter on data infrastructures for net zero is definitely worth a read.

But there were also some challenges back to the sector.

Alongside the digitalisation of our economy, many have voiced concern about the sector’s energy and climate impacts. Confusion over the sector’s footprint remains, partly reflecting different approaches to calculating the sector’s climate and energy impacts. The energy penalty of specific applications – such as bitcoin – continues to raise eyebrows and a myriad of (often incorrect) claims are reported in the media on the energy/climate impact of streaming/watching content via HD/sending emails and so forth.

In the “green computing” section of the report, another chapter I think is essential reading, the Society urges developers to build in energy efficiency into their thinking from the outset and to improve transparency. It challenges the sector to “lead by example and make data accessible to allow the greater monitoring of its energy consumption and carbon emissions.” Further, it argues for energy proportionate computing – in other words, use computing power effectively. Defining what “effective” is remains unanswered in the report, but the Royal Society suggests that regulators should develop guidance to help determine this.

But despite the academic rigor of the report, perhaps just three points which have been missed.

  • One is in respect to the call for data centres to publicly report on their emissions – in fact, in the UK commercial data centres have been reporting publicly since 2014 under a Climate Change Agreement so we have a world-leading handle on energy and climate emissions from the UK sector. So, the recommendation here could have been more focused on replicating this elsewhere in the World.
  • Another is on viewing media content via HD. This was picked up by the mainstream press, which urged people to stream in SD instead if they wanted to cut their emissions, as most emissions associated with streaming are determined by the device and format of what you are viewing. Unfortunately, the astonishing work of the last 10 years to improve the energy efficiency of TVs – eco-design legislation has facilitated a 32% improvement in energy consumption since 2011 - and the forthcoming (extremely tough) energy standards for TVs being brought in under the EU’s eco-design regime was missed. techUK last month, in a consultation exploring whether to adopt these standards in the UK, urged BEIS to adopt the same challenging standards in the UK too.
  • Finally, there was a case study highlighting policy intervention driving mobile phone charger standardisation focusing on micro-B. Unfortunately, the report failed to reflect that the market has shifted at great pace to USB-C which has many more advantages than its predecessor. USB-C adoption has been the quickest in the history of the USB interfaces and there is not an MoU or regulatory requirement in sight.

The report concludes by outlining a series of research and innovation challenges, which I think we can all agree on:

  • Transforming energy and digital systems to allow greater integration and optimisation.
  • Creating a data infrastructure for net zero.
  • Developing safe and robust core digital capabilities towards a ‘control loop’ for the planet.
  • Developing new green computing approaches.
  • Developing digital technology to enable other mitigation activities.
  • Distributing fairly the costs and benefits of the data-led net zero transition.

techUK will be running a briefing session with inquiry chair, Professor Andrew Hopper, Vice President of the Royal Society and the report’s author, Franck Fourniol on 6 January at 10am. To register a place, please contact

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