6 September 21

The Importance of Digital Infrastructure in the Accelerated Push to Net Zero

Later this year the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference. COP26 marks six years since the Paris Agreement and whilst strides have been made in achieving net zero, the weather and natural disasters that have occurred in 2021 are a stark reminder that there is more to be done.

Digital transformation was forced upon businesses throughout the coronavirus pandemic. What many were able to achieve in a few months would have otherwise taken years- sparked by the urgency to facilitate remote working as an emergency measure. However, with companies having invested in their digital adoption (and business owners recognising the benefits of remote working for employees) they are now looking to maximise the value of these investments.

Digital technologies play a critical role in meeting decarbonisation targets

The digital revolution has introduced a host of tools such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, automation and machine learning. These have already been deployed in some capacity to understand how and where energy is consumed and wasted. Organisations worldwide can monitor performance, connect operations and analyse their environment whether at work or home.

Between February and April of 2020, a report by the International Energy Agency reported that there was a 40% increase in global internet traffic. As working from home became crucial to tackling the pandemic, the use of the cloud and other online platforms became more prevalent. Digital channels and e-commerce skyrocketed and has remained the default for the future. Fortunately, this consumption can be carbon neutral and aid the progress to net zero. 

Focusing on the UK, analysis from Deloitte revealed that digital technology already deployed has the potential to reduce UK carbon emissions by 7.3 million tonnes per year which equates to 15% - half of what’s required to deliver on the Paris Agreement.

This is something that has not gone unnoticed by Governments worldwide. The COP26 Presidency recently launched Tech For Our Planet – a challenge programme aimed at start-ups to showcase pilot technology that will further aid net zero efforts.

Expanding the backbone of the internet

Reach net zero. Meet connectivity needs. Provide digital solutions. It is evident that a resilient and sustainable digital infrastructure is imperative for addressing socio, economical, and green concerns. Currently, 98% of international internet traffic is transported through subsea fibre optic cables. There are 400 submarine cable systems active around the world and a further 50 are under construction. They are the reason we have data centres, terrestrial fibre and wireless networks.

However, subsea fibre optical cables have a 25-year lifespan and a 3-year development lead time. This means by 2026 there will be a 40% shortfall in transatlantic internet capacity. Considering the growth of digital technology and the capacity that will be required in the future, it is no surprise that in 2020 alone $400 billion was spent on new digital infrastructure.

COVID-19 forced the world to recognise the need for a fast and reliable internet connection. This is important not only for those who already have access, but for those around the world who do not currently have internet connection.

Investing in digital infrastructure

2020 revealed just how quickly organisations and businesses could accelerate digital transformation to facilitate business continuity. Even before the pandemic, the growth rate of internet traffic was predicted to increase on average by 30% every year.

Investment will be required to continue developing a digital first approach and reduce carbon emissions Not only will the world need to focus on smart homes and smart workplaces, but smart factories, smart transport, smart schools and - essentially – a completely smart world will need to happen. The Royal Society, in a report from last year, stated that digital technology is vital to unlocking the net zero transition. In their Digital Technology and the Planet report, they set out a roadmap for maximising data and digital technology for building a low carbon economy and a green recovery from COVID-19.

As the demand for scalable new technologies increases year on year, as will the requirement for data capacity to manage the growing networks of connections. Investment in digital infrastructure will be needed to meet bandwidth and latency demands given that an estimated 30 billion networked devices will be connected globally.

Changing behaviours for consumers and businesses

The UK has cemented itself as a leader in the journey to net zero. Part of this is due to the decarbonisation movement not only being of high importance to official bodies, organisations and businesses, but individuals too. Consumers have recognised the need to reduce their own carbon footprints and have begun focusing on spending with sustainable brands, switching to renewable energy suppliers, and choosing greener ways to travel. Researched from GlobalWebIndex revealed that 71% of UK based individuals are dedicated to recycling and over 50% unplug devices when not in use.

New digital tools have allowed UK consumers access to information, resources, and businesses focused on achieving net zero. Companies have recognised a change in consumer habits which has resulted in updated business strategies to support their own carbon footprint reduction.

Without the already strong digital infrastructure in the UK, individuals and businesses wouldn’t have the tools to drive forward with net zero in the way in which they have already. However, the test lies in the rapid development in the country and whether the rest of the world can match their words with actions.