Sustainable Development

How the tech sector can power the shift to a sustainable economy

Power-generating windmill turbines are pictured at sunset at a wind park in Moeuvres near Cambrai, France, November 12, 2018

Many large global technology companies are committed to - or are already - running on 100% renewable energy Image: REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Andy Wales
Chief Digital Impact & Sustainability Officer, BT
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Sustainable Development

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

In a world where both the development of technology development and climate change seem to be powerful and accelerating forces, it’s worth asking how the two interact. You might be surprised. Responsible capitalism – much discussed at Davos this year – must include corporate climate leadership that makes use of the pace of technology change.

Last year’s UN report brought the dangers into sharp focus: we have 11 years to keep temperatures to only a 1.5°C rise by the end of the century. If we don’t, the consequences could be disastrous. Scientists predict our coral reefs will be completely wiped out. We’ll have many more heatwaves, causing heat-related deaths and more forest fires. If the planet warms by 2˚C, 10 million more people will be affected by rising sea levels by the year than if we limit it to 1.5°C.

The extremes of weather last year showed just how quickly our climate is already changing: we had incredible temperatures of more than 30°C in the Arctic Circle. There were wildfires burning across Scandinavia, and Africa experienced its hottest-ever recorded temperature of 51°C in Algeria. We can expect these records to continue to be broken if we don’t take action.

So what does it mean to be a leader on climate action? Put simply, it means aligning your business model to a 1.5°C world. This means having a relentless focus on reducing carbon emissions. For us at BT, we calculated we will need to reduce our carbon emissions by 87% by 2030 and by 100% by 2045. This puts us on track to be a net-zero business well before 2050, which scientists advise is the only way to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

This is where technology plays a surprisingly pivotal role; we can harness the technological change we are seeing to support our climate action goals. The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is unlike other sectors in two key ways. Firstly, it is reducing its carbon impact year on year. The world’s leading technology and communications companies such as Google, Apple, Amazon and here at BT have committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2020. BT is already at 100% in the UK, and this includes EE, the UK’s largest mobile phone company with 30 million customers.

The results can already be seen: the digital sector’s combined emissions declined about 15% between 2010 and 2015. The projection is that ICT emissions will be less than 2% of global carbon emissions by 2030. This is good for the bottom line – a combination of switching to renewables and energy-efficiency measures has saved BT £250m over the last decade.

The second key difference, and this is probably more important, is that the digital sector helps other sectors be more sustainable. Take renewables, for example. With intermittent supply, we need a smart grid to balance that supply with the demand for energy. Connected technologies make this all possible.

The same is true of the transport sector. Matching travellers with the quickest modes of transport at the right time can help avoid gridlock in cities. Recent research shows connected technologies could take 20 million cars off the road by 2025. Technology will make electric and autonomous vehicles the norm, reducing air pollution, making our streets safer, and saving lives.

A recent study by GeSI, a global NGO focused on sustainability in the technology sector, showed the extent of what technology could achieve. For every tonne of CO2 emitted by the technology sector, up to 10 tonnes could be saved in other sectors in the economy.

As WWF recently reported: “The biggest role that the digital sector can play is in contributing effective solutions to other sectors, influencing consumer and producer behaviour and leading the transformation of our energy systems.” Technology has the power to help us innovate our way to a sustainable economy.

Have you read?

This isn’t just technology use within your own business. Most businesses could do more with their supply chain. Speaking with suppliers about your sustainability goals can help to speed up the transformation needed.

At BT we invite our key suppliers to a competition we call the ‘Game Changing Challenge’. This encourages them to innovate to make our products more sustainable. It sends signals to suppliers to invest in new solutions, which creates new sustainable markets. The recent global focus on plastics and alternatives is a perfect example.

As 2020 draws much closer, and the time we have to act starts to dwindle, responsible capitalism will be led by the businesses that adapt. They’ll need to adapt to the new technologies that are being innovated, and use technology to adapt their business models to a sustainable future. Those that work in collaboration with others, such as their suppliers, will find that adaptation much quicker, easier and more fruitful for their business.

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Sustainable DevelopmentFuture of the Environment
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