UofG experts contribute to net-zero transition report

Researchers from the University of Glasgow’s School of Mathematics and Statistics have contributed to a major new report on how digital technology could help the UK achieve its net-zero goals.

The Royal Society’s report, published today, suggests that digital technology, from smart meters to supercomputers, weather modelling and AI, could deliver nearly one third of the carbon emission reductions required by 2030.

Digital Technology and the Planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero sets a roadmap for maximising data and digital technologies’ role in building a low carbon economy and a green recovery from COVID-19.

The document was compiled from the contributions of experts in fields including computing, sustainability, artificial intelligence and statistics drawn from universities and organisations across the UK.

Professor Marian Scott, of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, was one of the authors. Her research is related to development of a net zero data and analytics infrastructure which could include ubiquitous sensors and satellite observations and other data streams which could be fused to provide actionable intelligence through embedding them in management support systems.

Such an infrastructure could contribute to solutions delivering net zero, allow progress to be tracked, as well as supporting decisions concerning the efficiency of alternative interventions.

Professor Scott said: "Achieving net zero requires a balance between reducing carbon emissions where we cannot eliminate them, and ’negative emissions’ from activities such as carbon sequestration, reforestation and other solutions to actively remove carbon.

"In each sector such as business, transport, heating and energy, but even more importantly across sectors, action will be underpinned by a fundamental need for essential data and analytics tools to ensure the greatest benefits derive from the management of emissions and interventions, and avoiding unintended negative consequences."

The University’s contribution draws on expertise developed across the School of Mathematics and Statistics in a number of relevant areas. Those areas include the development of better water management systems and computationally-efficient emulators, as well as the monitoring and modelling of carbon in river systems and mapping global water quality.

The methodologies developed in these projects can be immediately extended and applied to networks of carbon sensors, supplemented by earth observation to provide enhanced spatial and temporal coverage of emissions. Along with the analytical development, University academics have also been developing different visualisation apps to help individuals or organisations to interrogate the data and models and to explore ’what-if’ scenarios to aid decision making.

Data from digital sensors and networks can be used to make increasingly sophisticated "digital twins" of real-world systems, to test and target interventions, or even control them in real-time.

"There are many routes to net zero, but digital technology has a central role to play, no matter what sector or country you look at," said chair of the report’s working group, Professor Andy Hopper FREng FRS, Vice President of the Royal Society and Professor of Computer Technology, University of Cambridge.

"This pandemic has accelerated the digital transition, so now is the time to take stock and ensure the sustainable development of future digital technologies and systems.

"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 data centres.

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

The report identifies four key areas to help secure a digital-led transition to a low carbon future and many touch on the issue around data:

Optimising our digital carbon footprint

  • Government should ensure tech companies share publicly data about the full scope of their emissions, in particular from data centres.
  • The tech sector should schedule computing activities for times of peak renewable supply wherever possible.
  • Regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority should develop guidance on the energy proportionality of digital technology, such as Bitcoin.

Building a trusted data infrastructure for net zero

  • Establish national and international frameworks for collecting, sharing and using data for net zero applications.
  • Set up a taskforce for digitalisation of the net zero transition, to identify priorities across sectors and work with tech companies to ensure systems can be scrutinised, are secure, and benefit communities.

Establishing a data-enabled net zero economy

  • Build skills for a digital and net zero economy at all levels as part of the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Use COP26 to champion international commitment on funding, data, skills and computing facilities to establish the digital infrastructure of the net zero transition.

Setting research and innovation challenges to digitalise the net zero transition

  • Update UK government policies, research funding frameworks and Industrial Strategy Challenge Funds to reflect the net zero imperative.

Related links

  • Digital Technology and the Planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero