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New Royal Society report on Digital technology and the planet

News  |  03 December, 2020  |  Reading time: 5 minutes
A new report published today (03 December 2020) calls on the UK Government, as co-hosts of COP26, to lead a worldwide effort to build a trusted data infrastructure that will make it possible to achieve net zero by 2050.

It also says the technology sector must lead by example, provide transparency and reduce its energy consumption and carbon emissions.

The UK became the first major economy in the world to put into law a requirement to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, in June last year. Encouraging countries to strive for ambitious plans to reach net zero is a key message of its COP26 Presidency. The Race To Zero Campaign is a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) global campaign for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery and is led by COP26 climate champions.

The report, ‘Digital technology and the planet: Harnessing computing to achieve net zero’ has been published by The Royal Society following a meeting in July that was attended by Space4Climate, the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and leading UK climate scientists.

It highlights the urgent need to accelerate the coordinated collection of reliable data to consistently and accurately monitor and measure emissions of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) around the world, and for this data to meet an agreed, actionable standard and to be openly shared. CO2 is the main greenhouse gas (GHG) caused by human activity and a key contributor to climate change.

Data about how much CO2 is in the atmosphere can be gathered by Earth observation satellites but coverage is intermittent, not sufficiently dense, and attribution of emissions to particular cities or countries remains a challenge. However, the UK Space Agency has joined forces with its French counterpart – the Centre National D ’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) – on MicroCarb, the first European satellite mission to measure emissions and uptake from natural processes and human activities from space and how they evolve with time. It will even be able to provide us with information on how individual cities are progressing towards the net zero target.

The report’s authors say that COP26, being hosted in Glasgow from November 1-12, 2021, is the ideal opportunity for the UK Government to lead on creating an international agreement to ‘enable the collection, sharing and use of data to underpin the development of applications and services helping achieve net zero’. It recommends that the UK Government should set up a taskforce to:

  • Develop a roadmap for digitalisation of the net zero transition (ensuring that the data meets the FAIR principals of Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable)
  • Work with the science and business community to review standards for emissions reporting to underpin the systematic collection of robust data about businesses’ energy use and emissions across sectors
  • Identify immediate policy interventions
  • Commit funding to innovative developments and improved skills
  • Ensure the public is involved in efforts to develop a shared understanding of the purpose of technologies deployed in the context of net zero and to co-design approaches to navigate the associated dilemmas.

It adds that regulators should give guidance on the carbon footprint of digital applications and recommends a focus on building ‘digital and net zero skills at all levels – from basic literacy to advanced data analysis skills …’ adding: “Re-tooling the workforce in this way will require a coordinated approach to nurturing data science and net zero skills across the country.”

The report adds: “COP26 presents an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate leadership in the digitalisation of the net zero transition and secure global change.”

Currently global CO2 emissions are typically not directly measured but rely on ‘ground-up’ estimates, such as how much CO2 a factory or city is emitting. This data tends to be estimated on annual timescales with a lag of at least one year making it difficult to understand and communicate effectiveness of climate mitigation efforts. This can be unsystematic and is globally incomplete, especially in remote and / or developing areas of the world. We need satellites to directly measure carbon emissions.

The report’s recommendations will take a significant step towards achievement with the launch of the MicroCarb Mission, due in 2022. MicroCarb will systematically monitor Earth’s atmospheric CO2 from space with extreme precision and detect the changes associated with surface emissions and uptake across the world from our cities and forests to our oceans. It has a ‘City Sweep’ observing mode that will enable mapping of CO2 emissions across cities that are large contributors to global emissions. Reliable measurements will enable progress towards net zero to be monitored and identify where extra interventions are needed.

UK organisations and scientists in the partnership include Space4Climate members the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO), GMV, National Physical Laboratory (NPL), RAL Space, Thales Alenia Space, University of Edinburgh and University of Leicester who are making crucial contributions. Their technological advancements and expertise include designing and building components of the satellite – which is the size of a large suitcase – quality assurance, calibration and scientific analysis of the carbon emissions data that MicroCarb will send back to Earth.

Prof Hartmut Boesch, Divisional Director NCEO and Head of the Earth Observation Science Group at University of Leicester, took part in The Royal Society meeting and backed the report’s call for greater collaboration. He said: “If we want to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement then we need reliable and transparent systems that can monitor the progress achieved by different countries. The launch of the MicroCarb mission in 2022 will be an important milestone that will pave the way for consistent, robust, systematic global carbon emissions and flux monitoring. The satellite mission to follow it and continue monitoring global carbon emissions is already in development. My colleague, Prof Paul Palmer, is advising on the European Commission CO2 Task Force, helping to define the future Copernicus Anthropogenic CO2 Monitoring mission and service.”

Beth Greenaway, Head of EO and Climate at the UK Space Agency, welcomes this report from the UK world leading scientists who are developing new algorithms to understand carbon fluxes with space and non-space technologies. “The report is helpful in our national and international efforts to tackle climate change.”