When Britain hosted COP26 in Glasgow last year, the world stood together in its commitment to tackling climate change and ensuring that generations to come will not inherit a depleted planet. While it is inspiring to see the ambition to curb a climate disaster, the reality is it can be challenging for people to know what role they and their businesses can play in achieving this.

As the professional body for IT, BCS has a duty to help lead the profession towards a green future. One of the ways we can achieve this is through understanding and using sustainable data.

As the world becomes increasingly digitised, so too has data become an undeniable part of our lives. There’s data left every time we use our phones to call a friend or search for something. Every time we get in our cars and set our Sat Navs, go to the supermarket for our weekly shops or visit our GPs to treat an ailment – we leave a digital footprint of our decisions that must be stored and processed somewhere, somehow.

The goal is not to abolish data or abandon progress for fear of negative consequences, but rather our goal is to carefully assess the situation and form a plan where we can enjoy the bounties of a digitalised, data-based future without harming our planet; understanding the impact of data – it’s environmental and energy costs, it’s potential for both harm and good – is key to unlocking a future powered by sustainable data.

Scale of challenge

People are aware of the threat of the climate crisis and while most know what they can do on a personal scale – work from home, eat a little less meat, hold on to their devices a little while longer – it appears businesses struggle to know how to address the mammoth challenge of saving the planet.

While 43% of the world’s 632 largest public businesses have Net Zero commitments, two thirds of them have failed to identify a clear path to achieving organisational Net Zero. There are two new start-ups founded daily in the UK.

These are often young and enthusiastic people who don’t have the budget of giants like Microsoft or Amazon to dedicate to R&D for carbon neutral business models: these are the people who most need help and support. These are the areas where we can have the most impact in terms of carbon reduction and striving to achieve Net Zero, yet they’re often overlooked.

In addition, there’s a disconnect between the virtual world of software engineers and the physical platforms that their software runs on. This is, in part, due to lack of government guidance and planning.

The absence of this means, while it’s all good and well creating applications that help people be greener, the net effect of such apps and the software they run on is not net positive. In order for technology and data to be at the vanguard of the battle against climate change, software and hardware need to be lean and green.

Barriers

There is often the well-intentioned but misguided attempts to propose grandiose but impractical solutions to the climate crisis – take putting data centres in Antarctica or the ocean as an example. These are solutions that those with large budgets and time may seek to pursue, but those without such resources – the majority of businesses – won’t be able to.

Furthermore, data centres contribute minimal amounts of CO2 emissions in the grand scheme of things, and focusing our efforts on them would be a misinformed use of people’s time and effort. And, ironically, we don’t have enough data on how much data centres contribute to climate change in order to justify such action.

Arguably, one of the greatest barriers to reducing an organisation’s carbon emissions is that people simply don’t know what they ought to be doing. Advice is decentralised and often contradictory. The government can play a role in this in providing clear guidance on practical steps organisations can follow to help them achieve Net Zero. One of the ways of doing so is through the sustainable use of data.

All our digital activities have an environmental cost. A 2019 report found that digital technology is responsible for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainability isn’t just good for PR and optics – it’s also good for your bottom line.

Sustainability analytics uses data – for example on energy and resource use, greenhouse gas emissions and supply chain performance – to generate insights on how a business’ operations are impacting the environment, and areas they can improve upon. Through sharing data sets and good practice measures, companies invite others to help achieve sustainable good practice through collaborative measures.

Overcoming barriers

In their ‘Digital Technology and the Planet’ report (2020) the Royal Society found that digital technology can deliver about 15% of the 2030 carbon reduction target; we have already experience digitally enabled positive societal changes: conference calling software kept us connected when the pandemic forced us to isolate, data based modelling has allowed for increasingly accurate weather forecasting, allowing farmers to protect crops and prevent food waste.

This increased yields in farming has been enabled by robotics and precision farming. This accurate weather forecasting has also enabled supermarkets to stock local produced goods, reducing the carbon footprints global supply chains come with.

These are just a few examples of how a digitally enabled, data focused world is being improved by technology. It’s a taste of what’s possible when the world of technology led by professionals is united behind a single goal. It shows that the benefits of technology go beyond our industry: technology’s greatest strength lies in its abilities to facilitate carbon reduction in other sectors. It shows only a sliver of our industry and profession’s capacity to be a force for good in this world.

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The Royal Society’s report also says that data must be at the core of the Net Zero transition, enabling us to monitor emissions; digital technologies must empower individuals to monitor their outputs and carbon footprint. The UK government should be a global leader in the creation of a database to underpin the development of apps and services that will help achieve Net Zero.

Recognising, championing and rewarding good practice is key to incentivising and inspiring people to get on board the lean and green technology initiative.

  • In January, we awarded Penny Endersby with the Society Medal. Penny, a computer scientist, is the CEO of the Met Office. We felt it was imperative to recognise her leadership of the Met Office in the context of her commitment to enriching weather forecasting and overseeing the Met Office’s multi-million pound investment in premier IT systems. This investment will help the government fight climate change by providing accurate modelling to inform government policy. The Chartered Institute for IT is proud to be supporting people like Penny and the Met Office to ensure that technology is a force for good in society.
  • BCS is a leading partner in the Alliance for Data Science Professionals, who have worked tirelessly to advocate for a recognised profession for Data Scientists, the first of whom will receive an award from the Royal Society next week – this new standard is endorsed by the National Statistician, Sir Ian Diamond who recognises the ‘exponential growth’ of data science in the public sector, for example, and its potential to make understanding and reaching the Net Zero target a reality.
  • Data is deemed so important, not least in Climate Change, that that National Data Strategy pledges to ensure that organisations from finance to energy are required to participate in Smart Data initiatives and share data effectively and responsibly.
  • That is why BCS calculates that we need to double the number of students leaving school with a high quality computing education to at least 200,000 – one of these reasons, apart from equipping them for the future and avoiding digital poverty, is that these are by definition ‘Green jobs’ and understanding technology and data is essential for ethical and climate focussed careers.
  • The National Data Strategy (NDS) also makes provisions for responsible data, which encompasses sustainability. The NDS has four pillars of effective use: foundations, skills, availability and responsibility. This is where the UK government can lead by example through demonstrating regulatory good practice through well governed use of data facilitated by competent, ethical and accountable professionals. Of course, this problem goes beyond the capabilities of one nation-state; that’s where regional governments like the EU and its Code of Conduct for Data Centres can offer a centralised guide for businesses on how to operate with efficacy and help save the planet.

Over the course of the pandemic, the efficient use of data has proven to have a positive impact on the environment. For example, through using open transport data, Citymapper allows individuals access to information on real time traffic data so they can choose less congested routes, thus reducing further congestion and emissions. This is one example of individual organisations doing what needs to be done on a large scale if we are to rise to the challenge of climate change.

The ‘lean and green’ approach applies to data itself, of course. We’ve already discussed the importance of being lean and green with soft and hardware. Data is not exempt from this rule. Organisations and individuals must consider the sustainability implications of holding on to data for longer than is realistically necessary. Safely storing large amounts of data has environmental implications, one that we need not offset if we were to just think carefully about what we choose to hold on to.

There’s still a lot unknown about ‘sustainable data’, and any attempt to tackle the issue would be futile unless we invest our time and efforts into getting a better understanding of the issues. Put simply, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Data is now an indisputable part of life, one that comes with environmental costs. It has already proven its capacity to be a force for good, for carving a progressive and inclusive world; there’s no reason the climate should be excluded from this.

So, what are the key things I want to leave you with today?

We don’t need to find ground breaking, new in order to enact positive change. We cannot afford to wait for new innovations to be the answer to all our problems – we don’t have the time. Instead, through the coordinated used of existing data we can act now to secure a healthy a planet for generations to come.

Key takeaways:

  1. Solutions must be at scale – big changes will come from how we use data and computing power to understand how problems are accelerating and changing. There is need for technologists i.e. expert data scientists working on this for the good of global society.
  2. Rewarding and recognising these technologists will encourage and incentivise more people to join these professions and do them to a high standard; investing in using data at world-class level, and growing the future of data science is absolutely vital to understanding the impact of climate change and to measuring a reaching Net Zero.
  3. We need to evaluate what the profession doing for others. Let’s bring best practice together, as demanded by the National Data Strategy – there is such exciting knowledge out there from the Met Office, to IBM’s commitment to responsible computing to the Royal Society of Chemistry mining phones for precious metals. Let’s co-ordinate and bring it together.
  4. Technology and data science is our strongest partner in understanding and reaching Net Zero – let’s promote the tech and data science profession, from digital apprenticeships to Master’s degrees in AI - as an aspirational choice for men and women who will inherit the planet.