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Tech and data key to achieving low-carbon economy, says Royal Society

Report says net-zero transition should be data-led, and calls for coordination between government, regulators, industry and third sector

The Royal Society has set out a roadmap for using data and technology create a low-carbon economy, saying the UK has a “key role” to play in a digitally led green transition.

Its report Digital technology and the planet: harnessing computing to achieve net zero, sets out how digital technology and data can deliver nearly one-third of the required carbon emission reductions by 2030.

“Under the right conditions, digital technologies could optimise and reduce their own footprint and bring even more transformative changes, triggering a bigger switch beyond optimisation,” said the report. “They can help promote a shift towards low carbon ways of living and working – enabling individuals to adopt ‘greener’ lifestyles, from how they travel to how they heat their homes.”

The report sets out four key areas to secure a digital-led transition to a “low-carbon future” – adopting a trusted data infrastructure for net zero, optimising the country’s digital carbon footprint, creating a data-enabled net-zero economy, and setting innovation challenges to digitise the net-zero transition.

In the report’s foreword, Andrew Hopper, vice-president of the Royal Society and professor of computer technology at the University of Cambridge, said that although there are “many routes to net zero, digital technologies are central to all modern economies”.

“The UK should use its position to show how digital technology can underpin change across every sector,” he said. “Departments and local authorities should draw up plans for using tech to reach net zero, and to acquire the skills to make it a reality.”

Hopper added that the tech sector is also in a position to lead by example, managing its own carbon footprint through, for instance, scheduling computing jobs “at times of peak power production, to make the best use of renewable sources”.

“To allow transparency and wider planning, the tech sector should make public the data on its own emissions,” he said. “The tech industry should also ensure the energy use of infrastructure development and technology applications is proportionate.”

The report said the government should also use the net-zero target to drive momentum behind provisioning of data access, infrastructure and skills, which includes working to close the digital divide and skills gap.

It said the government has a responsibility to set an example of best practice, and called on it to ensure data strategies and data standards across departments and regulators facilitate data use and promote “trustworthy technology use”.

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“Through low-carbon, outcome-focused procurement and through sponsoring pathfinder studies, the government can lead the way in driving development and adoption of digital technologies for net zero, modelling their use for others and engaging regulatory bodies in identifying the data-sharing agreements and other frameworks needed to support such applications,” the Royal Society report said.

The government’s recently published National Data Strategy should also include identifying levers to ensure tech companies publicly share data about the energy consumption of their digital systems and products, particularly from datacentres, it said.

The report also called on the government to set up a taskforce to connect and increase cross-department and cross-sector initiatives on “the digitisation of the net-zero transition”, which will enable tech companies, regulators and the third sector to ensure that data-driven systems are developed and standards are set.

Commenting on the launch of the report, Hopper said the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transition, and “now is the time to take stock and ensure the sustainable development of future digital technologies and systems”.

He added: “Transparent technology can benefit consumers, the technology sector and the planet. If more people are confident in moving their computing onto the cloud, energy savings are possible using more efficient datacentres.

“We must stay alert to digital demand outpacing the carbon emission reductions that this transition promises. This report shows how addressing barriers to innovation and harnessing the potential of our technology can make a sustainable net-zero future a reality.”

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