Digital technology: the backbone of the future of net-zero emissions


Data are emerging on the impact of digital technologies on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and their importance is clear. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and Accenture say digital technologies will help the energy, materials and mobility industries reduce emissions by 4 percent to 10 percent by 2030. Capgemini puts the AI ​​climate potential at 16% across multiple sectors.3

Despite the proven impact of these technologies, organizations lack the urgency around their adoption to accelerate decarbonization and emissions reduction goals. In industry, many leaders use partners to support digital transformation, with energy transition remaining a secondary objective. Digital and sustainability leaders are taking an incredibly conservative approach to failing technology to solve current problems. They cite problems such as justification, the immaturity of existing solutions, the need for further research or adaptation, and challenges ranging from intermittent renewable energy supplies to a lack of confidence in carbon trading schemes.

MIT Technology Review Insights conducted a global survey of industry leaders to examine their use of digital technologies, planning, and readiness to meet decarbonization targets. The study interviewed 350 C-level leaders in eight major global companies to gather their insights on these solutions. Insights were gathered through in-depth discussions with nine subject matter experts.

The following are the key research findings.

Digitization is the backbone that supports the energy transition. Although there are differences between industries (and regions), digital technologies are important (rated 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important) to optimize efficiency and reduce labor and waste (scoring an overall score of 6.8). Design and optimization of carbon extraction technologies (6.7); Making sustainability data accessible, verifiable and transparent (6.2); monitoring of GHG sinks (6.6); and designing and optimizing low carbon footprint energy systems (5.8).

The main decarbonisation driver for most industries is the circular economy. The majority of participants (54%) from all industries (except petrochemical manufacturing) cite a circular economy4 as their primary environmental sustainability goal. A circular economy reduces wasteful consumption, increases efficiency, and captures resources and energy. The second most highly rated sustainability goal is improving the availability of clean energy (41%) and the third is improving energy efficiency (40%).

Collaboration with technology experts is how the industry creates digital solutions. The most cited approach to using new digital technology is through vendor partnerships (31%). To accelerate the deployment of digital technology (especially in energy, metals and mining, construction and petrochemical production), only 16 percent as a high adaptor. Yet, experts say embracing open standards and data sharing—for AI and ML to overcome complexity—to streamline the supply chain—is “inevitable” to achieving decarbonization goals.

Attitudes towards technology adoption and innovation vary by sector and region. Although cyber security is generally considered the biggest external barrier to digital transformation (58%), construction companies are more concerned (76%) while metals and mining companies are less concerned (47%). Overall, 11% of respondents want to experiment with digital technology early, but some sectors are less interested: only 4% in metals and mining, 5% in petrochemical production and 6% in industrial production. Collaboration across departments and organizations and buy-in and a willingness to learn are essential.


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