Innovating for a Sustainable Future: The Indispensable Role of Data

By Alchemmy’s Jack Paisley 

Climate change is arguably the most pressing issue facing our planet today. With rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events, it’s clear that we desperately need to reduce our carbon emissions and transition to a more sustainable way of living. Data may well be a powerful asset to help us achieve this.

By collecting and analysing data on everything from energy use to agricultural practices, we can start to understand our direct impact on the environment and identify opportunities for reducing our carbon footprint. This blog explores the role data can play in fighting climate change – from tracking emissions to developing data-driven sustainable solutions. We’ll also consider some of the challenges and opportunities associated with using data in this way, and touch on how data is already being used to change behaviours. Ultimately,  we’ll establish how powerful data will be in tackling one of the greatest global challenges of our time.

To understand the extent of the climate problem it’s important that we track our emissions and measure our progress in implementing changes. Whether we’re watching tv or boiling the kettle, almost every action has an environmental cost associated to it. Carbon emission calculators provide us with a scale to compare these against, allowing us to attribute more meaning to our decisions at both individual and organisational levels. Examining this data helps us identify opportunities for reducing carbon footprints and enabling more informed decision making on which innovations are worth pursuing further.

A great example around how the use of data has impacted our behaviours is the introduction of smart meters. Many of us have caught ourselves watching our smart meter in shock as we see just how much energy we’re using in a single day. They’ve put household energy usage at our fingertips and allowed us to customise our schedules, reduce consumption and learn more about the benefits of changing our behaviours. Imagine how insight like this could scale to large organisations to shape their strategy on sustainability and create meaningful change.

There are also additional, less obvious victories for data in the fight to be sustainable. Vertical farming and the rise of precision agriculture have enabled huge advancements in food production, land use and resource optimisation. By carefully monitoring the needs of plants, fertilisers can be used more sparingly leading to a reduction in waste, emissions, and soil compaction.

The volume of environmental data being gathered is therefore increasing considerably. From the increased use of satellites to monitor weather patterns, to Internet of Things (IoT) sensor networks examining air quality and congestion, we are generating more data than ever before. But how do we exploit the benefits of this data? Effective data management is essential if we are to translate this insight into action for change, where suitable analysis, monitoring, and governance are all necessary. Through structuring data effectively and improving transparency around data lineage, we can ensure that data artifacts are reliable and built to scale. This will drive decision making and behaviours which result in real sustainability improvements.

There are also some challenges associated with an increased reliance on data. Exponential growth in data capture and storage requirements has led to enlarged data centre demands. They are to thank for keeping our internet running day and night, but also consume a lot of electricity – some of which still relies on fossil fuels. From powering the servers to cooling the air that is pumped round the warehouses they occupy; data centres generate an environmental footprint that shouldn’t be ignored. Are we really going to need all this data in 5 years’ time? Or can we be more deliberate and think about what can be deleted to save on the resulting emissions.

As mentioned earlier, carbon calculators have gained popularity and are being increasingly used by both individuals and organisations to understand their impact on the environment. They all rely on differing sets of source data upon which estimations are drawn. With so many providers available, each with their own methodologies and assumptions, who’s calculation should we trust? A model can only be as good as the data you base it upon hence the term GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) is often thrown around. Part of our battle with data is refining models and determining what is most suitable to enable maximum impact of our actions.

It’s clear that organisations and consumers are becoming more ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) conscious and with that comes the desire to be seen as doing the right thing. Greenwashing can transpire due to a lack of corporate oversight as well as a lot of companies lacking the supporting data and understanding around the true effects of their sustainability efforts. It’s very easy to be misled and, without the right level of data transparency, businesses may struggle to build trust and accountability for their actions.

We’re already noticing what data can do to help us in the fight against climate change. It enables us to assess our impact and means we can hold others to account by fact checking their environmental claims. Through an improvement in environmental data literacy, we hope that the organisations of today will become more carbon cost driven across all levels, for the betterment of tomorrow. Data provides a vital mechanism to review effectiveness and without it we risk derailing progress and losing sight of our collective end goal. There’s no doubt that large scale innovations are still required but it’s safe to say that data will be an indispensable player in the pursuit of saving our planet.

Alchemmy can help you understand the environmental impact your organisation is having and work with you to implement more sustainable practises. If you’d like to find out more, please get in touch.

Written by

Sam Smitherman

Published on

38th March 2023

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