Digitalisation and decarbonisation: a 2-D approach to building back greener

Across the world, two disruptive and powerful trends are taking hold: digitalisation and decarbonisation. At times, it seems as if these two forces are acting against each other, with digital technologies accelerating economic growth, but also consuming huge quantities of energy and emitting high amounts of CO2.

But it’s becoming clear that rather than competing, digitalisation and decarbonisation can work together in ways that achieve sustainable economic growth without destroying our home planet.

The net zero imperative

We’re now familiar with the evidence that global warming will do irreparable damage to the world unless we can reduce the greenhouse gases that cause it. Getting to net zero means achieving the right balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

The challenge is one not just for national governments. Businesses are facing growing regulatory, reputational and market-driven pressures to transform their business models and embrace the shift to a low-carbon, sustainable future. It’s here that digitalisation can support us on the path to net zero.

The digital possibilities

In 2020, a Green Alliance study reported that  digital technologies could have significant positive environmental impacts, including: accelerating the deployment of clean technologies and helping businesses to stop wasting energy and resources.

But the report also found that many UK businesses are still not making use of digital solutions: only 42% of UK businesses have purchased cloud computing services, compared to 65% in Finland and 56% in Denmark. The authors highlighted a number of factors explaining slower digital adoption, including lack of digital skills, concerns about cybersecurity and privacy, and underinvestment in infrastructure.

AI as an ally in the battle against climate change

Another report, published last year by PwC and Microsoft explored the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in tackling the climate crisis. Focusing on agriculture, water, energy and transport, the report revealed numerous ways in which AI can have positive environmental and economic impacts.

  • In agriculture, AI can better monitor environmental conditions and crop yields;
  • AI-driven monitoring tools can track domestic and industrial water use, and enable suppliers to pre-empt water demand, reducing both wastage and shortages;
  • AI’s deep learning, predictive capabilities can help manage the supply and demand of renewable energy.

The report stressed that AI cannot act on its own, but will rely on multiple complementary technologies working together, including robotics, the internet of things, electric vehicles and more.

While the challenges of putting AI to work in tackling the climate crisis are great, the prizes of doing so are equally significant. The PwC/Microsoft report estimated that across the four sectors studied AI could:

  • contribute up to $5.2 trillion to the global economy in 2030;
  • reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by up to 4.0% in 2030, (an amount equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined);
  • create up to 38.2 million net new jobs across the global economy.

Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature.

The downsides of digitalisation

As we’ve previously reported, the infrastructure that supports the digital world comes with significant energy costs and environmental impacts. From internet browsing, video and audio streaming, as well as manufacturing, shipping, and powering digital devices, digital has its own substantial carbon footprint.

The PwC/Microsoft report acknowledges that there will be trade-offs and challenges:

“For example, AI with its focus on efficiency through automation might potentially lead to ‘over exploitation’ of natural resources if not carefully guided and managed. AI, especially deep learning and quantum deep learning, could also lead to increased demand for energy, which could be counter-productive for sustainability goals, unless that energy is renewable and that electricity generation is developed hand-in-hand with application deployment.”

In addition, there is a need to ensure that all parts of the world are able to capture the benefits of digital technologies – not just the more advanced economies.

Final thoughts

Decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions is one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime. Digital technologies have enormous potential not only to achieve decarbonisation, but to improve economic performance.

As both the Green Alliance and PwC/Microsoft reports have underlined, this can be achieved by taking a joined-up approach to digitalisation and green growth. This means thinking beyond the technology to consider issues such as investing in education and training to develop the skills needed to support the growth of clean industries and digitalisation, addressing privacy concerns and supporting businesses in their drive to shrink their carbon footprints.

As we emerge from a pandemic which has inflicted great damage to economies, but which has also demonstrated the possibilities of changing longstanding habits, digitalisation is presenting us with opportunities to ensure that building back greener is more than just a slogan.


Further reading: more on climate change and technology from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

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