How technology can empower local councils to fight back against the climate emergency

Almost nine in ten councils have declared a climate emergency – but when battling against various objectives and pressures, how many have any confidence in what to do next?  

In this guest post, Peter Ruffley, CEO of edge environment-focused data analytics firm Zizo, sets out the steps that local authorities must take to cut their carbon emissions and operate more sustainably.

High on the government agenda is the UK’s carbon-neutral objectives, yet much of the pressure to deliver on these lies with local authorities. And with a complex building portfolio – extending from housing to offices – what is the right approach to improve energy efficiency, move to low-carbon heat, and embrace smart technologies across these estates?

There is an ever-growing array of technologies available that can help to reduce carbon footprints. The challenge is to determine what IT tools to use and when and where to prioritise their usage. Understanding the current state of play is key to prioritising the areas in need of change and, hopefully, providing a baseline against which any improvements can be measured.

Much of the thinking is currently focused on smart cities and buildings – particularly with the increase in Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and the promise of 5G networks. This includes technology that can automatically optimise traffic flow, switch off lights and reduce the carbon footprint, for example.

However, the challenge for many local authorities is that the approach being encouraged during this ‘planning’ phase is too slow, too speculative, and, by default, has a technology dependency that has both a high financial and carbon cost. The smart city promises, or macro solutions, have appeal in theory. But they require significant time, infrastructure, and resources before any tangible changes can be made or advancements achieved.

In principle, a smart city will be able to optimise traffic flow to decrease congestion and improve air quality. But until the entire model is operating, these plans cannot be tested at scale – and it is only then that we will uncover whether traffic optimisation makes a difference to air quality.

A great number of local authorities don’t have the money or the time for this macro approach. And, even if they had, can they justify the carbon footprint associated with such drawn-out procurement processes? Therefore, before any local authority embarks upon a smart building or city initiative, it is essential to understand the carbon impact associated with these huge data resources – especially when so much of the data is collected speculatively.

Edge Computing in Tandem with IoT

IoT has a vital role to play. But what will make a huge difference, not only to the carbon and financial cost, but also to the speed of actionable insight, is the IoT deployment model chosen.

Using edge computing in tandem with IoT minimises data storage while removing the need for expensive datacentre infrastructure. Small, low-cost, edge devices can be set up immediately and combined with IoT sensors to quickly capture the current state of play.

Local authorities are provided with usable insights to support their carbon-neutral plans by analysing this data in context. For example, by setting up two identical family houses with edge IoT sensors, insulating one and giving it a smart meter, and comparing the energy usage to the other uninsulated, unmetered one. And with edge computing, there is no delay in performing the required analytics, or taking the necessary actions, to optimise the energy efficiency of the building. Therefore, smart technologies can be rapidly trialled, and the real value of this technology can be established.

This approach highlights priority areas for intervention, but also encourages a more pragmatic and immediate response.

If the issue is office workers forgetting to turn off the lights, rather than investing in an expensive artificial intelligence set up to manage the lights, an approach whereby edge computing is combined with gamification to encourage behavioural change could be used instead. This could help to reduce energy usage at a much lower cost, with a similar low-carbon overhead.

In summary, local authorities need to rapidly identify the largest contributors to their carbon footprint; and the ability to determine how best to mitigate the problems. Edge computing and IoT offer a tactical approach that not only provides rapid insight but also facilitates the innovation and experimentation that will underpin any successful carbon-neutral strategy.

Today, many compelling green technologies are coming to the market – some will work, some won’t. Some can be implemented quickly, and others will require mass changes. But all will have to be tried in a real-world environment to determine their efficacy.

Pragmatism is key. There is no room for speculation – and no justification for massive carbon-consuming cloud-based data storage setups. Local authorities empowered with a low-cost, low carbon approach to evaluating options will make immense progress – while the rest continue to store up even more carbon problems for the future.