A study from Vodafone and WPI Economics has called on the UK government to put the rapid deployment of digital technology such as the internet of things (IoT) and 5G networks at the core of its forthcoming net-zero strategy, helping it to reach its goal to slash emissions by 78% by 2035, before achieving net-zero by 2050.
The Vodafone/WPI report, Connecting for net zero: addressing the climate crisis through digital technology, examines how existing tech could substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in three key sectors – agriculture, manufacturing and transport. Its headline finding is that the adoption of such advanced digital technology in those sectors could reduce the UK’s overall emissions by as much as 4% a year, amounting to 17.4 million tonnes of CO2e, the equivalent of the annual emissions of the North East of England.
Looking further into the effect of digital in the differing sectors, the research found that in manufacturing, 3.3 million tonnes of CO2e could be saved annually, the same amount of emissions produced in the manufacture of almost 600,000 cars. It added that digital technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and smart building will cut emissions in smart factories through faster and more efficient production lines and increased energy efficiency.
In transport, the study calculated that 9.3 million tonnes of CO2e could be saved annually, the equivalent of taking two million cars off the road. For example, telematics can enable logistics companies to shorten delivery routes and cut idle time through intelligent route planning, significantly reducing fuel consumption.
And in agriculture, the data suggests that 4.8 million tonnes of CO2e could be saved annually, equivalent to the emissions produced in the production of three billion pints of milk. For example, smart sensors enable improved monitoring of crops, soil, fertiliser, feed and water, substantially improving resource efficiency and reducing waste.
One of the current issues concerning communications technology in the UK has been associated with accessibility – getting advanced communications technology to places that are not in cities and urban areas, and to cross economic boundaries. The report stressed that every part of the UK would see the benefits from advanced digital technology. In towns and cities, most of the carbon savings from digital tech (87%) could come from transport; while in the countryside, 38% of the savings could come from the digitisation of agriculture.
The report also identified other benefits from deploying digital technology. It noted that a previous study by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) suggested that it could help create 175,000 additional jobs across the economy and that historic manufacturing heartlands, such as Wales, the West Midlands, the North East and North West, could be transformed as factories of the future adopt 5G and IoT technology to improve productivity, efficiency and safety, considerably boosting economic output.
“Significantly reducing emissions from traditionally carbon-intensive sectors – such as manufacturing, transport and agriculture – is one of the biggest opportunities of the next decade,” said Andrea Dona, chief network officer UK at Vodafone. “Businesses and government must work together to drive the adoption of technology that will maximise efficiencies and help the UK decarbonise more rapidly to meet vital environmental goals. At Vodafone, we are committed to ambitious net-zero targets and to helping our business customers to reduce their carbon footprints through our technology.”
Susanne Baker, associate director, climate, environment and sustainability at TechUK, added: “It is critical that government, regulators and business work together to fight climate change and achieve net-zero by 2050. Digital technology has a huge potential to help us achieve our climate goals. Digital is already emerging as a key tool to support the net-zero transition, and as this report shows, existing digital technology can have an even more significant impact in reducing our carbon footprint across the economy.”
The report follows Vodafone UK’s recent announcement that its entire operation – including mobile and fixed networks, datacentres, retail stores and offices – is now 100% powered by electricity from certifiably renewable sources. Vodafone has also committed to help its business customers to save 350 million tonnes of CO2e globally by 2030 and estimates that over the last year, about 54% of its 123 million IoT connections directly enabled customers to reduce their emissions.