Data to Combat Climate Change

If you are aiming to be a data professional, or are an established data professional seeking a new application area, you might want to look at the data aspects of tracking and managing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change

PollutionPicture by marcinjozwiak on PixabayClimate change is recognised as an existential issue for humanity. To tackle it, we must control the emission of greenhouse gases. There is a growing will to do this, but there are huge problems. Our existing energy infrastructure keeps us alive and prosperous. If carbon emissions were magically halved tomorrow, within months many people would be reduced to extreme poverty, or would die. We need to understand where emissions come from and how they are used in order to control their reduction as safely as possible. This is where the data professional comes in.

Monday (30 Jan 2022) was the first day of the first Open Group virtual event of this year. It focused on Open Standards and Platforms for Operationalising COP26.

COP26, the latest United Nations climate change conference, resulted in a number of commitments for the future, with a recognition that rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse emissions are required, and a call on countries to accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.

Many people feel that commitments for the future are not enough. Activist Greta Thunberg famously said that COP26 was a failure. She believes that immediate and drastic cuts to emissions are needed now.

The Problem

This may be true, but the question remains: how and where to make the cuts?

The Open Group, as a global consortium that enables the achievement of business objectives through technology standards, is very much concerned with "the how". Its contribution is in the definition of open standards and platforms that will help companies, and the global community as a whole, understand where emissions are coming from and manage their reduction.

At the virtual event, Sammy Lakshmanan, Principal, Environmental Social and Governance, at PwC, put the key questions:

  • How do we measure emissions more accurately?
  • How do we report our emissions to all interested stakeholders?
  • How do we verify emissions and associated offsets?

Tracking Emissions

Gavin McCormick, Co-Founder and Executive Director at WattTime, gave a fascinating answer to the first question. WattTime is part of the global Climate Trace coalition, which uses artificial intelligence to track emissions by analysing satellite images. His organisation specialises in power plants, and partners with other organisations that specialise in other kinds of emitter, such as steel mills. By identifying visual features such as the smoke coming from chimneys and the ripples in ponds used for plant cooling, they can estimate emissions, which can vary considerably even over a 5-minute period, with a fine time-granularity.

Many companies, although they do not burn fossil fuels, create emissions at second hand by using electricity. Their computing departments are a significant element of this. Gunnar Menzel, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Capgemini, said that IT consumes about 10% of all electricity worldwide today. By 2030, this could rise to 20%.

The energy ecosystem is complex. Rules are needed to clarify how to allocate emissions and savings, so that companies know where they stand. Within a company, a carbon ledger, similar to a financial ledger, becomes very important for the company to understand its position. There are some accounting rules to help draw up a carbon ledger but, as of now, there are many thorny issues in this area.

As any data professional will tell you, an essential starting point for sharing data is a robust data model. This applies to emissions data, and the model must be backed by data governance, interoperable technology and systems, and data standards and exchanges.

The Open Footprint Forum

The Open Footprint Forum is a forum of The Open Group. It has created a data model, and is looking at ways of exchanging data between companies.

There are now plenty of technology platforms and data exchanges that can simplify the monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gases. There are standard reporting frameworks, but they do not tell you how to record and monitor. The role of the Open Footprint Forum is to develop overall guidance and standards. It partners with other organisations that are developing standards in specific areas.

Celine Lescop, Lead Digital Sustainability and Data Architect at AXA, one of the world's leading insurance and asset management groups, presented an approach to guiding organisations towards a sustainable information system. It has architectural models for tracking energy consumption and carbon footprint. The Open Group is developing this approach, and AXA is using it.

Translating Need to Action

While the global need is recognised by everyone, translating it to local action can be an issue. Company boards are reluctant to allocate money and resources to activities that do not contribute to the "bottom line". Obtaining support from top-level management was a significant problem for the team at AXA.

There are signs that this is changing. According to Lakshmanan, there are now more interested stakeholders than there used to be. They include investors and regulatory bodies such as the US Security Exchange commission. We are seeing corporations, as well as individuals, demanding "green" products. Consumers are willing to pay more and invest more on an individual and on a company level.

Menzel reported that 80% of customers say that they want to make a difference in saving the planet. Companies are now measured by the impact that they make on society, as well as by commercial value.

The Role of Data Professionals

We have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, one way or another, companies will be made to do it. Public pressure is the key.

The reductions will come from analysis of the sources of emissions, through data shared by companies and governments, visible to and monitored by the general public. Measurement, reporting, and verification of emissions data will be essential if we are to tackle the existential issue of climate change. Data professionals will play a crucial role.