Why a solid sustainability strategy needs good data as its foundation

In this guest post, Jason Knights, managing director of biodiversity championing sustainability firm Ground Control, sets out the important role that data has to play in protecting society from greenwashing

Research from Google Cloud recently revealed that sustainability is one of the lowest areas of investment for enterprises across Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) despite sustainability ranking highly in terms of business priorities.

While this news is disappointing, it doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Sustainability is a recent addition to the corporate lexicon and many businesses still need to educate themselves further on sustainability to make it a core part of their investment strategy.

At the same time, the absence of any consensus on how best to measure sustainability makes it a grey area where many promises can be made but companies are rarely held to account.

With ramping accusations of ‘greenwashing’ being aimed at global brands in recent times, this is set to change significantly in the coming years, and technology and data have big roles to play.

It’s understandable that accusations of greenwashing have emerged as some organisations have conflated announcing sustainable ambitions with exploiting it for self-promotion.

The reason why it is often so hard to hold companies to account for these statements is because it can be difficult to track a direct line between a business’ activity and its environmental impact.

Even something seemingly straightforward like tracking carbon emissions becomes complex when you consider the difference between scope one emissions, which a company directly generates through fuel/energy consumption, and scope three emissions which concern the carbon footprint of the products or services they use.

The latter makes up 95% of emissions for a typical company and factors in every point in the supply chain where carbon was emitted to transport, store or modify that product in any way. Looking at this from a global level, things can get very complex, very quickly.

Despite its difficulty, benchmarking is the only way that businesses can be sure of whether or not they are reaching their sustainability goals. We therefore need better data and better ways of getting that data.

There is an urgent need for the industry, academia and government to come together to agree on a standard for measurement and a system for sharing data so we can assess the progress of the UK and how we perform globally. Otherwise, we are all working in the dark in terms of understanding if we are making progress toward arresting the advance of climate change and helping preserve the natural life on this planet or merely treading water.

Taking biodiversity as an example, right now the UK lags behind the world significantly – ranking in the bottom 10% of the world’s least biodiverse countries, according to research from London’s Natural History Museum – with 50% of the UK’s biodiversity already having been lost.

This has a huge impact – ranging from the quality of the air through to soil nutrition and the environment’s ability to protect against natural disasters. The combination of these factors can all have a potentially catastrophic impact on GDP, leading world banks to predict that if 40% of biodiversity is lost by 2050, half of global GDP – $44trn – will also be at risk.

While this stark data has been thoroughly researched by experts, we need a wider range of data sources to help tell us how near or far we are from meeting our commitments on a local as well as global level.

Greater granularity of data is needed to really understand biodiversity at ground level and how different species are reacting to global warming and increased human activity. We also need to be tracking more regularly, identifying dangerous trends of decline and extinction as early as possible instead of when it’s too late.

It’s in the interest of businesses to understand their impact on their nearby ecosystems and how this contributes or detracts from biodiversity net gain across the country.

Building this picture, unfortunately, is a lot easier said than done. Looking at biodiversity again, we need more than a sketchpad and pen to catalogue all the different species of flora and fauna across the country. There is a vast number of different species in existence with subtle differences imperceptible to the untrained eye, while the estimated number of undiscovered insect species alone stands between five and 30 million.

Current metrics also consider biodiversity in very different ways, in that some don’t consider biodiversity above ground level, ignoring the different species of birds and mammals that inhabit trees.

Capturing as much detailed data as is practical and reaching an agreement on measurement can ensure everyone is making educated decisions and singing from the same ecological ‘hymn sheet.’

Getting data is just the first step. We also need to be able to make sense of the data to make the right decisions. To effectively measure biodiversity, we need to harness technology and the right skills to analyse data sets from across the whole country accurately.

Thankfully, many of the big data technologies and algorithms we developed in the age of the mobile phone and the internet can serve us well when applied to sustainability. Big data has even been identified by the UN as key to progressing toward its sustainable development goals.

Specifically, it highlighted combining satellite imagery, crowd-sourced witness accounts and open data to help track deforestation (SDG 13: Climate Action) and using satellite remote sensing to track encroachment on public land or spaces such as parks and forests (SDG 11:  Sustainable Cities and Communities). Analysing a wide range of data from multiple sources can further aid these goals while improving biodiversity net gain across the globe.

Obtaining and analysing representative data on biodiversity has its challenges, but it is a worthwhile aim to tackle greenwashing and give us an accurate understanding of the health of our ecosystems.

In the near future, new advancements in artificial intelligence and quantum computing could provide an integrated view of biodiversity which links seamlessly with analysis of weather patterns, soil nutrition and carbon dioxide to detect patterns. In the meantime, we need to agree the standards and create open ways of collaborating to pave the way for a sustainable future.

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