Digitalization to Decarbonization: What Steps are Private & Public Entities to Erase Carbon Footprints?

Jan 21, 2022
11 min read

The daunting issue of global warming has plagued major industrial sectors all over the globe. In a world characterized by increasing industrialization, urbanization, and a host of other issues including financial crises and food security, increasing carbon emissions stand out as a pressing problem that requires immediate action.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, there has been a considerable increase in temperature even in 2021 – the global mean temperature for this year was approximately 1.09°C more than the 1850-1900 average, indicating urgency for a solution.

Climate Change and Importance of Decarbonization

Climate change has been a persistent problem since several years now. Excessive deforestation, improper waste management, and oceanic neglect are among the many reasons that have led to fluctuating climatic cycles, bringing about shrinking glaciers, heavy precipitation, rising maximum and minimum temperatures, and higher ocean temperatures. Carbon emissions are at an all-time high, brought about majorly by built environment.

According to the Urban Land Institute, built environment, i.e., man-made infrastructure is responsible for almost 40% carbon emissions worldwide. Think tank Chatham House propagates a similar line of thought, claiming that cement is responsible of around 8% of global carbon emissions.

In a scenario as grave as this, decarbonization has become more significant than ever before. Decarbonizing man-made structures with carbon-negative construction technologies is just one of the many ways to lower emissions and create a healthier environment. Energy-efficient buildings characteristic of enhanced HVAC systems, smart energy management systems, light upgrades, and better insulation are more than likely to have reduced carbon footprints, increasing energy efficiency by 20%, to say the least. As per energy.gov, U.S. consumers are said to have saved around USD 14.7 billion in energy costs merely by making the switch to LED lighting.

Decarbonization goes well beyond constructing carbon-negative buildings though. Creating a decarbonized economy involves a host of strategies such as energy management with analytics solutions, alternative fuel usage in vehicles (or better still, to go full steam with electric vehicles), using renewables more often than not, and adopting sustainable procurement practices. Going carbon-free has a slew of advantages, significant among these including longer life expectancy and better economic output as a whole.

How to Become Carbon-neutral with the Help of Technology

In a bid to mitigate global warming and achieve a considerable reduction of greenhouse gases, authorized bodies the world over have been collaborating to bring about vital initiatives. One such major initiative is the Paris Agreement. It is a legally binding international treaty pertaining to climate change, signed by 196 Parties on 12 December 2015 in Paris. It came into force on 4 November 2016. Its implementation involves considerable social and economic transformation, aided by technological developments to achieve climate change and reduce GHG emissions.

In a manner of speaking, massive advancements in technology may be one of the ways why our planet is currently in so much turmoil. The same technologies and ingenuity, however, can be easily deployed to ensure that we become carbon-neutral soon enough. The Internet of things, digitization, and artificial intelligence, in addition to numerous other technologies, will help lead the way to a decarbonized economy.

The Internet of Things (IoT) for example, can be effectively utilized to collect, store, and analyze data and information pertaining to buildings, plants, energy systems, and the like. In essence, this will enable businesses to adopt solutions that can measure actual device usage, control over/underuse, match consumption to targets, etc. Adopting AI on a large scale will help measure and control a company’s carbon usage and help set sustainable targets for the future.

Speaking of AI, adopting the Artificial Internet of Things (AIoT) will help in realizing a carbon-free economy, as it helps source real-time data from numerous systems, helping companies organize, collect, and collate data into detailed reports. Eventually, these reports help in monitoring and measuring emissions and enhancing data quality.

In an era where globalization and industrialization are rapidly shaping developments worldwide, digitalization may emerge as a double-edged sword, depending on where man chooses to put it to use. That is to say, some estimates claim that global data traffic is expected to triple to approximately 400 billion gigabytes monthly through 2022 – which is equal to the storage space of 100 billion DVDs. In essence, digitalization may be causing more carbon emissions than ever.

Having said that, digitalization can be conveniently deployed to better monitor and understand the ecological footprints of various products, although, this would require modern technologies to be completely integrated into the society. Digital solutions can be used to ensure clean air, lesser pollution, preservation of biodiversity, climate protection, and more. In the form of smart textiles for instance, digital solutions can be used to convert disposable items into products that are durable and recyclable. In the wake of COVID-19, with the work-from-home culture at the forefront, home office solutions such as video conferencing tools and the like gained precedence, greatly reducing unnecessary travel.

In a nutshell, technological solutions can be actively pursued to reduce carbon emissions and accomplish the net-zero emission targets promised by private and public entities. To ensure that carbon management solutions remain a major part of emission reduction agendas, technologies supporting offset integration and real-time measurement must be adopted on a large scale.

The Trend of Corporate Decarbonization – What Does the Scenario Look Like?

Climate protection is no longer an option or a fad; it is real and imperative and requires immediate attention. Corporate firms, to that end, have been doing everything in their capacity to bring about fundamental changes in the energy ecosystem.

According to the World Energy Outlook 2020, emission reductions of around 2 billion tons can be achieved in 2030 by employing minor changes such as walking shorter distances, flying less, or resetting air conditioners. To that end, presently, big tech companies have been working toward carbon offsetting, direct air capture technology, other carbon capture, and utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies. In addition, many corporate entities have been working to scale up vital clean energy technologies such as wind and solar energy, geothermal, advanced nuclear energy, and green hydrogen.

A noteworthy example of corporate decarbonization is that of Dalmia Cement. The leading Indian cement maker apparently manufactures the lowest carbon intensity cement in the world – around 20 percent lesser than the cement average the world over, and is further planning to scale up its targets. The company has committed to become carbon negative by 2040.

Speaking of yet another instance defining the current scenario, Levi Strauss & Company has identified the significance of furthering its climate protection target, not only to adhere to the aims of the Paris Agreement, but also to ensure that its supply chain remains protected from the impact of climate change. In 2018, Levi Strauss & Co. committed to a target of 90 percent emission reductions in all its owned and operated facilities the world over and a 40 percent emission reduction in its supply chain, by 2025.

Sustainability Efforts by Companies

Decarbonization efforts at the corporate level have not been limited to Dalmia Cement and Levi Strauss & Company; in recent times, a score of companies have been working to achieve the zero-emissions target. A gist of the same is provided below:

McDonald’s Corporation

Globally renowned food chain, McDonald’s Corporation announced its decarbonization commitment long back, having pledged to achieve net zero emissions spanning its operations worldwide, by 2050. As part of this commitment, the company has joined the SBTi’s (Science Based Targets initiative) Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign. To that end, the firm plans to increase the levels of emission reduction in its current 2030 science-based target. Since 2018, McDonald’s has already achieved 8.5% reduction in restaurant and office emissions and 5.9% decrease in supply chain emissions.

Google

Tech giant Google, since long, has been committed to reduce its carbon footprint. In 2007, the company became carbon-neutral and has recently claimed that with extensive investments in high-quality carbon offsets, it has erased its entire carbon footprint. Last year in September, it announced that it is going a step ahead with an approach called 24/7 Carbon Free Energy.

In effect, Google will now match electricity usage by the hour with locally sourced zero-carbon energy, thereby operating on carbon-free electricity 24/7, by 2030. Recently in May 2021, Google partnered with The AES Corp. for the supply of 24/7 carbon-free energy to its data centers in Virginia.

Microsoft

Tech Corporation Microsoft recently declared that it will leverage the best of modern technologies to be completely carbon negative by 2030. By the year 2050, Microsoft aims to mitigate all the carbon it has generated since its inception in 1975. In addition, the firm will also launch an initiative to use Microsoft technology to help its clients and suppliers lower their own carbon footprints.

Microsoft has also come up with a new climate innovation fund worth USD 1 billion, to speed up the global development of carbon capture, reduction, and removal technologies. It plans to make carbon reduction a major part of its procurement processes as well.

Apple

Last year in July, iPhone giant Apple announced that it plans to make its entire manufacturing supply chain and product life cycle, carbon neutral by 2030. As a matter of fact, Apple is already carbon neutral across its operations worldwide, but with this mission, the firm will ensure that every one of its products sold will have net zero climate impact by 2030. The company has been taking every possible initiative in this regard.

Recently in October, as a part of its decarbonization goal of 2030, Apple declared that the number of its suppliers committed to deploying 100 percent clean energy has more than doubled since 2020. Close to 175 Apple suppliers will transition to using clean energy, as Apple plans to bring over 9 gigawatts of renewable power online, globally. Over time, this action will help mitigate over 18 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.

Amazon

In 2019, Amazon was the co-founder of The Climate Pledge, i.e., a commitment targeted toward net-zero carbon across all its operations by 2040. The retail giant encouraged many other companies to join its pledge, claiming that cooperation is the only way toward global decarbonization. To that end, the company has generated an innovative carbon system of record that measures the sources of carbon across all Amazon operations, thereby enabling the firm to concoct ways to decrease emissions.

Amazon also has plans to deploy 100,000 electric delivery vehicles and is further looking out for methods to enable sustainability in freight operations. In addition, it has invested in sustainable building technologies, such as carbon-sequestering cement, and is using the same in its construction projects.

American Airlines

American Airlines has recently joined the bandwagon of companies aiming to lower carbon emissions through their operations. Early this year, the firm collaborated with Deloitte to increase the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for lowering aviation emissions. The agreement demands that both companies reduce CO2 life cycle emissions from aviation by around 3,050 metric tons of carbon dioxide – which apparently amounts to around 10,000 passengers flying from New York City to Los Angeles (one-way).

Further, the company has pledged to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, thereby supporting its current commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. To that end, it has joined the Race to Zero and the Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign. In September this year, American Airlines has also invested close to USD 100 million in a collaborative effort to increase the development of clean energy technologies for achieving a net zero economy by 2050.

BT Group

UK-based telecom company BT Group has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. In the year 2016, the company achieved a target it had set earlier, four years ahead of schedule. The target was to lower carbon emissions intensity by 80% on 1996-97 levels. Since 2009-10, BT has managed to save USD 328 million, and during 2017-18, the company cut its energy bill by USD 37 million.

It has accomplished this by bringing about efficient setups in its data centers, networks, and buildings. Further, BT also claimed that it aims to decarbonize by 87 percent, against the 2016-17 levels.

The IKEA Group

The IKEA Group – one of the best furnishings giant worldwide, was indeed among the first ones to be a part of The Climate Group’s EV100 initiative to fast-track the roll-out of electric transport last year. IKEA now uses electric vehicles (EVs) to further its goal of tackling emissions.

The company had pledged to transition its "last mile" home deliveries spanning key cities such as Los Angeles, Paris, Amsterdam, Shanghai, and New York, to zero-emission transport by 2020. By 2025, the company aims to have all its "last mile" home deliveries to be in the zero emissions bandwagon.

NRG

U.S.-based energy company NRG is also a part of the global decarbonization move, and has raised the bar by announcing to help its customers decarbonize their power needs through reduced emissions and delivery of renewable energy. The utility aims to reduce 50% absolute emissions by 2030 as opposed to the 2014 baseline – so far, it has already achieved 70% of this goal. NRG has also managed to reduce absolute emissions by almost 20 million tons.

Signify

Philips Lighting – now Signify, has also joined the carbon neutral bandwagon. The firm has pledged to transition to 100% renewable energy with RE100. In addition, it will accelerate the transition to charging infrastructure and electric vehicles. Both these goals will be led by The Climate Group. Signify has also committed to using net-zero carbon buildings for its owned and operated sites – around 300 of them, to say the least.

Efforts Undertaken by Government Bodies

As the issue of climate change becomes more and more pressing by the day, governments the world over have been charting out effective plans and policies to ensure carbon neutrality at the earliest. While some have already commenced decarbonization strategies, many others have joined carbon neutrality programs and have been collectively working toward a carbon free future. The paragraphs below enumerate the steps some governments have been taking in this regard.

The UK government

The UK government has been very proactive in this regard; indeed, emission reduction has been a major target for the nation since two decades. During 2000 and 2014, energy-related CO2 emissions in the UK reduced from 591 to 470 million metric tons, while GDP grew from USD 2.1 to USD 2.7 trillion. Recently in 2021, the UK government unveiled a Net Zero Strategy that laid down a plan on how the country will create 440,000 well-paid jobs in addition to unlocking GBP £90 billion in investment in 2030.

The City of Miami

The Miami City Commission recently approved the City’s new comprehensive GHG reduction plan called Miami Forever Carbon Neutral, in a bid to achieve decarbonization in the state by 2050. Its main aim is to mitigate citywide GHG emissions from 2018 levels by 60% by 2035. In order to accomplish the same, the City plans to implement policies that address renewable energy usage, EV adoption, energy efficiency, and promoting a new green economy.

The Indian government

India aims to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2070. To that end, the Indian Prime Minister recently declared a five-fold strategy at the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP26). As a part of the same, the Indian government aims to obtain its non-fossil energy capacity to 500 gigawatts (GW) by 2030. The country has goals to meet 50 per cent of its energy requirements from clean energy by 2030 and it will reduce the total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tons till the same year. In addition, India aims to mitigate the carbon intensity of its economy be lesser than 45 percent.

The U.S. government

The U.S. has been involved in decarbonization strategies since a very long time. Recently in April 2021, President Biden announced a new target for the U.S. for achieving a 50% to 52% reduction in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, as opposed to the 2005 levels. In order to accomplish the same, the U.S. will focus on deploying clean and green technologies. In addition, it will invest in new technologies to mitigate emissions associated with the construction sector, say like, high-performance electrified buildings.

The U.S. will also help in reducing carbon pollution from the transportation sector by enhancing the efficiency of vehicles, providing funds for charging infrastructure, boosting R&D efforts, spending on low carbon new-generation renewable fuels, and bringing about cutting-edge transportation technologies.

Examples of a few other nations ramping up their efforts with regards to decarbonization:

· In October 2020, the government of Japan declared its plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Further in April 2021, the nation raised its earlier goal of emission reduction by 2030, to a massive 46% from its 2013 levels.

· In June 2021, Germany passed a new Climate Action Law that pushed ahead the deadline for achieving climate neutrality, to 2045. The Law also states that the target for greenhouse gas emission reduction will be 65% by 2030 as compared to 1990, while a new interim target of 88% reduction applies until 2040.

· Switzerland already has an ambitious zero emissions started, and recently, it has declared that it will need to spend USD 14 billion annually (around 2% of gross domestic product), over the next thirty years, to achieve its 2050 carbon-zero goal.

· In 2009, Singapore committed to reducing emissions by 16% from business-as-usual (BAU) levels, by 2020. In 2015, it pledged to reduce GHG emissions by 36% from 2005 levels, by 2030. On 31 March 2020, Singapore claimed that it plans to halve its emissions by 2050, from its peak to 33MtCO2e to accomplish carbon neutrality by 2050.

The adoption of advanced technologies such as machine vision and artificial intelligence to mitigate emissions will soon become mainstream considering the pace at which governments and corporate entities are working toward decarbonization. As private and public entities collaborate and work on technological developments that can be harnessed to achieve zero carbon emissions, we can perhaps, have hopes to expect a carbon-free future sooner than envisioned.