This article is part of our special report Green and digital: Europe’s twin transitions.
Digital technologies have the potential to unlock carbon emissions cuts in sectors that were previously considered hard-to-abate, such as buildings, industry and agriculture, a European Commission official said.
“There is no Green Deal without digital – there is no doubt about this,” said Daniel Mes, an official who works on the staff of Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president in charge of the Green Deal.
In a landmark climate law agreed earlier this year, the European Union adopted ambitious goals to become climate neutral by 2050 and cut carbon emissions by 55% before the end of this decade.
Those targets “are a call to arms” for the tech industry “to help us achieve these very ambitious goals,” Mes told participants at an online event hosted last week by trade organisation DigitalEurope.
The shift to electric mobility “is a prime example of how the two transitions can go hand in hand,” Mes said, citing automation features and software that is needed to charge up electric vehicles.
Turning to agriculture, he mentioned novel “fertilisers-as-a-service” contracts where farmers get the exact amount of fertilisers they need delivered automatically, eliminating the need for stockpiles.
In terms of buildings, automation and control equipment allow optimisation of lighting, heating and cooling, and ventilation systems.
“No policymaker working on the Green Deal – whether in cities, on building renovations, on the transport system or farming of the future – can work seriously on this without a plan for digital,” Mes emphasised.
“We need these transitions to go together,” he said, adding: “Digital is a big weapon – if not the biggest weapon – to help us achieve our climate goals”.
But for that to happen, Mes said reliable metrics were needed – both to measure the amount of avoided emissions and to evaluate the carbon footprint of the digital sector itself.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” said Jill Duggan from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-profit advocacy group based in the US.
According to Duggan, technology now allows measuring greenhouse gas emissions with a level of accuracy that was previously unthinkable 15-20 years ago.
One example is the international methane emissions observatory, which uses satellites to measure methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure and agriculture. Similar satellites are now being rolled out to measure CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
“We used to have to rely on states to report on their emissions, but it’s becoming more and more possible using digital technologies and satellites to understand exactly where the large sources of emissions are and to verify what is happening,” she said.
Digital technologies can also help improve resource efficiency in the construction sector or industries like automotive, she said.
“The estimate is that we can use just 30% of the steel in buildings or in cars that we needed previously because digital technologies allow us to measure at a far more granular level exactly what is needed to be safe,” Duggan said.
European data spaces
The importance of measurements and having reliable data on carbon emissions was also emphasised by Marc Nézet from French tech company Schneider Electric.
For him, this will require clear standards from regulators on the methodologies applied to measure carbon emissions in different sectors of the economy.
“We need to be precise on what we want to measure,” Nézet said – whether it is in sectors like buildings, transport, or farming. Getting those measurements “across the life cycle of each of those processes is extremely important,” he stressed.
The European Commission has started reflecting on this as part of its proposed regulation on data governance put forward in November last year. The regulation includes proposals to create “common European data spaces” in healthcare, the environment, energy, agriculture, mobility, finance, manufacturing, public administration, and skills.
“We face here a unique opportunity to promote the pooling of sustainability data,” Nézet said. “And that would really define the singularity of a European sustainability data space to the benefit of society,” he said.
According to Nézet, this is “not a defensive approach but a very offensive approach” where better sustainability measurements support faster and better decisions in all sectors of the economy.
Eight ideas for the green and digital transition
On Thursday (27 October), DigitalEurope released a report putting forward eight ideas to accelerate the twin digital and green transitions.
“By 2030, digital technologies have the potential to help other industries save 20% of global CO2 emissions,” said Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, DigitalEurope’s director-general, in a foreword to the report.
Examples cited in the report include Vienna, where buildings’ emissions were reduced by 71% through a combination of digital technologies and data analytics. In the Netherlands, the Port of Rotterdam is on track to halve its emissions by 2030, thanks to route planning optimisation. In Belgium, thanks to AI-based tools, a 5-6% increase in renewable power was integrated in the country’s electricity grid.
But there are challenges in implementation, with skills shortages ranking at the top of concerns for the IT sector. In Belgium, for instance, there are 8,000 positions for digital experts that are currently still to be filled.
In the private sector, companies are also reluctant to share data because it is seen as commercially sensitive information, Duggan said, calling for “a culture shift” with regards to transparency.
The IT world itself needs to be more conscious of its carbon footprint. A recent study estimates that electricity demand from the ICT sector will grow by 50% by 2030, reaching 3,200TWh. According to the study, 75% of that growth is expected to come from data centres and networks, including cloud storage for mobile applications, streaming and gaming.
But the sector is also improving. A survey carried out by Schneider Electric in 2020 showed data centres could cut their energy consumption by 24% thanks to digital technologies. With growing shares of renewables in the energy mix, this led to a 50% reduction in the CO2 footprint across the 50 data centres surveyed, Nézet said.
Worldwide, the share of the IT sector in electricity demand is 8.7%, “which I would say is reasonable given the impact it has on our life,” Nézet said.
Green finance taxonomy
At the EU level, there are also incentives for the digital industry to improve its carbon footprint. For instance, data centres that follow the EU code of conduct on energy efficiency are already eligible for a green investment label under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy.
Some in the industry are now pushing for 5G telecom infrastructure to be added to the taxonomy, but Mes said it is still too early for that.
“We just didn’t have enough meat on the bones yet” to define sustainability criteria for telecoms equipment, he said. A 5G network, for instance, is not something that is laid out purely to cut emissions, he remarked – it is meant to achieve other things. He added that there is not yet an EU code of conduct for telecom networks comparable to what has been put in place for data centres.
But he did not rule out the possibility, saying “there will be a new round” of EU taxonomy rules where the inclusion of telecoms networks can be envisaged.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]