Stepping Up: Tech’s Unique Role In Driving Sustainability Across Industries
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inesses the world over are making commitments to their own decarbonization goals—which will prove critical to achieving the ambitious decarbonization targets agreed upon at the recent COP26 event. These companies are looking inward, reviewing their operations and processes all in a quest to reduce emissions.
For technology companies, however, sustainability involves both looking in and looking out. Of course, tech companies are examining their operations and supply chains in order to minimize their own carbon emissions. But the tech sector has the added responsibility and opportunity to develop the smart technology solutions that enable the digitalization, electrification, and efficiency that can drive decarbonization and help companies across every industry achieve their sustainability goals.
With the information and communication technology sector likely to spend over $3 trillion on research and development in the next decade,1 there is a distinct opportunity to ensure this spend is put into products that have a positive impact on decarbonization. Such digital advancements as IoT, data analytics, and cloud are already having an impact on companies’ emission reduction goals. Future decarbonization efforts will likely require innovation at this level, including smart solutions like smart grids, smart buildings, smart cities, and precision agriculture.
At the same time, the negative impacts associated with the growth and proliferation of technology—such as increased energy use in data centers, depletion of rare metals and minerals used in certain devices, and the ethical challenges associated with the exponential use of AI or social networks—must also be minimized.
When it comes to sustainability and impact, the focus for most sectors is on how you make products—that is, reducing the impact of the factories and supply chains that support manufacturing. For the tech sector, however, the focus is much more about how you use products and services—those that enable manufacturing and supply chains to function more sustainably. As such, tech companies need to think about how their products and services can be deployed in the world for maximum positive effect on climate. How can tech be used to help end users realize their own sustainability ambitions? That includes digitally enabled products and services that decarbonize our world, for example, through smart solutions and cloud computing that can drive energy efficiency and diminish waste.
Any company that offers digitally enabled products has the opportunity to contribute to decarbonization efforts. And there are three key steps to follow:
Connect growth to impact and purpose: By connecting their purpose to the ultimate impact of their products and services, tech companies can align growth with impact. One major technology company empowers its employees by providing a clear purpose, vision, and goals, then entrusts them to “run with it,” that is, incorporate it into services and products they develop.
Set priorities that align to that purpose: Focusing efforts and strategy by determining impact priorities that differentiate between operations and products and services. One way for a company to do this is to map issues that matter most to their stakeholders and business by degree of value creation and influence then prioritize and focus efforts.
Develop a program for delivery: It’s critical to set clear, quantifiable targets, and then develop a strategy to meet those targets and drive value creation. As emerging standards come to fruition—through International Financial Reporting Standards and the International Sustainability Standards Board2—companies can—and will be expected—to articulate their ambitions more clearly.
The tech sector has the opportunity to increase its role in the journey to sustainability by working across industries to identify and innovate on the digital technologies that will take decarbonization to the next level. This includes focusing on a few key sectors where technology can have the most impact in terms of application as well as the scale of the emitter. For example:
Manufacturing: Technologies such as IoT, analytics, machine learning, and 3-D printing are all becoming more accessible as factories innovate and automate. These technologies are enabling such carbon-reducing trends as on-demand manufacturing, supply chain optimization, and predictive maintenance.
Agriculture: Technology is playing a larger role in this sector and can help reduce carbon by bringing together IoT sensors and AI systems to monitor farm data in real time. This enables automatic responses to changing conditions and can reduce the use of such resources as fertilizer—which accounts for around a third of agricultural emissions.3
Energy and utilities: With electricity demand expected to double by 2050,4 technology-enabled tools that support decarbonization is critical in this sector. Technology such as machine learning and AI can support energy and resource efficiency as well as enable smart grids that are more responsive to demand. Advances in storage technology will also play a large role in decarbonizing this sector.
Mobility: Technology has a range of sustainability applications within this sector, chief among them EVs and their batteries and charging networks. But technologies like IoT and AI can also drive decarbonization via intelligent traffic systems, smart parking, and public transit efficiencies.
Buildings: The use of fossil fuels for heating makes up almost half of the building sector’s emissions.5 Sensors and other technologies, however, can support smart buildings, which can improve efficiencies and responsiveness to heat and energy demands.
Looking to the future
With its unique position to drive the products needed to decarbonize across industries, the tech sector must take on a leadership role, bringing together key stakeholders to collaborate and innovate. This means not only making the most of current technologies, but also taking the lead in identifying and developing new technologies that can have the most impact for other sectors as well.
The tech sector must also work to increase the understanding of how vital a role technology will play in decarbonization. This understanding is key to supporting the research and development that will be needed to make critical technologies a reality. By aligning this pursuit of innovative products with the bottom line, tech companies will not only discover new opportunities for growth but also help the world make the great strides needed to achieve its sustainability goals.