Digital technology: the backbone of a net zero emissions future End-shutdown

Data on the impact of digital technologies on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is emerging, and its importance is clear. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and Accenture say digital technologies can help the energy, materials and mobility industries reduce emissions by 4-10% by 2030.1 PwC estimates that AI alone can reduce emissions. global GHG emissions by 4% by 2030.2 while Capgemini reports the climate potential of AI puts the figure at 16% across multiple sectors.3

However, despite the proven impacts of these technologies, there is not enough urgency for organizations around their adoption to accelerate decarbonization and emissions reduction goals. Across the industry, many leaders are leveraging partners to support digital transformation, while the energy transition remains a secondary goal. Digital and sustainability leaders are taking a surprisingly conservative approach to technology that fails to address current issues. As justification, they cite the immaturity of existing solutions, the need for further study or customization, and challenges ranging from intermittent supply of renewable energy to a lack of confidence in existing carbon trading schemes.

MIT Technology Review Insights conducted a global survey to examine industry leaders’ use, plans, and readiness to adopt digital technologies to achieve decarbonization goals. The survey reached out to 350 C-level leaders at large global companies across eight major industries to gather their perceptions of these solutions. Insights from in-depth discussions with nine subject matter experts were also collected.

The following are the key findings of the research:

Digitization is the backbone that will sustain the energy transition. Despite differences between industries (and between regions), digital technologies are considered important (ranked from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important) for optimizing efficiency and reducing energy and waste (overall score of 6, 8); design and optimize carbon sequestration technologies (6.7); make sustainability data accessible, verifiable and transparent (6.2); monitor GHG sinks (6.6); and design and optimize energy systems with a low carbon footprint (5.8).

For most industries, the main lever for decarbonization is a circular economy. A majority (54%) of respondents across all industries (except petrochemical manufacturing) cite the circular economy4 as their top environmental sustainability goal. A circular economy minimizes waste with reduced consumption, increased efficiency, and the recovery of resources and energy. The second highest rated sustainability goal is to improve access to clean energy (41%) and the third is to improve energy efficiency (40%).

Partnering with technology experts is how the industry innovates with digital solutions. The most cited approach to adopting new digital technologies is through vendor partnerships (31%). However, executives are less likely to stress the importance of open standards and data sharing across the supply chain to accelerate the deployment of digital technology (especially in energy, metals and mining, construction, and petrochemical manufacturing), and only 16% identify it as the top enabler. However, experts say the adoption of open standards and data sharing, essential to AI and ML’s ability to conquer complexity, to optimize the supply chain is “inevitable” to meet decarbonization goals.

Attitudes towards technology adoption and innovation vary by sector and region. Although cybersecurity is considered the biggest external obstacle to digital transformation overall (58%), construction companies are far more concerned (76%), while metals and mining companies are less concerned (47%). Overall, 11% of respondents aim to experiment with digital early on, but some sectors are less enthusiastic: just 4% in metals and mining, 5% in petrochemical manufacturing and 6% in industrial manufacturing. Acceptance and a willingness to learn are essential for cooperation between departments and organizations.

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