Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Creating digital opportunity from the decarbonisation challenge.
To support the point that “Technological, behavioural, and structural change is the best and only way to reduce emissions.”, the following blog argues that the success of the European Commission's 'green and digital transition' will be underpinned by data-driven, transparent, and regionally replicable monitoring and reporting systems. Such systems will provide a better gauge of the bloc's collective sustainability performance, especially as it attempts to ensure that the pre-pandemic energy agenda is neither distorted by recent emission reductions nor derailed by forthcoming economic recovery activity. In more practical terms, these systems will help decision-makers to plan for and justify complex decarbonisation activity, to unlock opportunity for existing and emerging industries, and to create worthwhile jobs for future generations.
The decarbonisation process is, understandably, more complex than simply replacing fossil fuel supplies with green energy supplies. From a socio-economic perspective, the process entails understanding in-depth energy demand, along with the many characteristics behind the demand. This includes the type of energy which is consumed, the volume which is required, and the location of this demand, as well as the industries, lifestyles and activities which drive this demand. The demand analysis process must, therefore, address the key ambiguity behind the 1987 Brundtland Report definition of the term ‘sustainable development’ - which is to understand our 'needs', both current and future.
The value of digitalisation, which involves a redesign of core organisational processes around data systems, is that it helps us to monitor and make sense of these ever-changing needs. It allows decision-makers to understand human activity and patterns within the built environment - and to assign to these estimations on demand and associated supply requirements. This enables users to create more accurate and relevant insights which justify future green-rollout strategy - including: smart energy systems, energy-efficiency subsidies, and inter-regional interconnection infrastructure.
Establishing these decision-making systems requires a strategic digitalisation approach. The various stakeholders, issues and relationships must be clearly defined, and the terrain of regions (including the physical networks, built environment spaces, and administrative boundaries) must be carefully mapped and profiled. Similarly, the myriad of decision-making resources, such as policies, guidelines, plans and regulations - which are often regionally specific - must be translated into standardised digital assets for modelling and scenario development.
The complex and lengthy process which is the digital green transition could, however, be simplified and accelerated through synergy with external efforts. Just as with regional climate policy and targets, the frameworks for designing these digital decision-making systems are already well established. This includes the guidelines which have been developed by the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (part of the UN Statistical Division), which help nations to achieve their climate, energy and community-focused Sustainable Development Goals. It also includes the various Open Geospatial Consortium locational-data standards which local and regional governments use for monitoring and reporting purposes (e.g. to meet their requirements as signatories to the climate and energy-focused Covenant of Mayors convention). In the European context, other frameworks which will enable the green digital transition include the various national spatial data infrastructure (e.g. INSPIRE metadata directive), the European Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, and the Integrated-Single Energy Market, which supports green energy trading between participating nations.
The opportunities for government, public, and industry stakeholders in this increasingly digital and green paradigm could be significant. Data-driven systems will guide the rollout of smart and efficient energy systems (including electric vehicle charging stations and district heating networks for recycling and redistributing industrial waste heat). They will also enable closer co-ordination between building, transport, and telecommunication infrastructure planning activities, and, to support modern lifestyles, they will help ensure that energy-intensive data-centre infrastructure can be accommodated on the grid.
The further integration of the energy and digital fields will, of course, require a wider understanding of the digital world language. This includes concepts such as interoperability, distributed, on-demand, as-a-service, and capacity - in terms of how they relate to both the physical energy sector and to the information technology sector. Such a broader dialogue will, for example, allow policy-makers to focus on and adapt to the most relevant socio-economic trends - at both the macro and micro levels. Within this green and digital narrative, regulatory testing (i.e. ‘sandbox’) environments, data-driven policy, and responsive city planning are, therefore, all very possible.
As with any process, the green digital transition should begin with understanding, monitoring and reporting on our circumstances before taking any significant action. Now that atmospheric Co2 levels are at their highest level in the past 3 million years, it may, therefore, be more impactful if we widen our focus on 'saving' the planet to better understanding what we require from it. The advantage of this collaborative survival-first approach is that it will help us to account for, budget and share these resources in a more sustainable manner - on a cross-cultural, cross-sectoral and cross-boundary basis. In doing so, and in building information systems to support future decarbonisation decisions, we may then be better prepared for when unpredictable and disruptive events, natural or manmade, next occur.
The author Niall Conway is currently involved in the Regional Energy Demand Analysis Portal (REDAP) research project. The project is focused on standardising a process for energy demand analysis in the building and transportation sectors across distinct European regions.
The content and views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of the ERA-Net SES initiative. Any reference given does not necessarily imply the endorsement by ERA-Net SES