Technology’s tricky role in the UK’s Zero-Carbon aims

The UK government's aims are both helped and hindered by policy, and the impact of IT in every part of business.
15 September 2021

British energy giant BP, under the leadership of new chief executive Bernard Looney, declared this year its aim to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, although it was vague on how it planned to hit the target. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

The UK has pledged to reduce carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050.  All greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 78% by 2035, with the eventual goal of carbon neutrality as a nation 15 years later.

According to the Pew Research Center, 37% of UK citizens feel climate change will personally harm them during their lifetimes.  That’s a much more optimistic view than Sweden’s population, for example, where 44% of the population believes the same. In the US, the measure of the population that believes they will be personally harmed stands at 60%, yet that country’s level of optimism in terms of a belief (or faith) in the public’s response to climate change is only 47% positive. In the UK, 70% of the population are confident in the public’s positive response to climate change.

Naturally responding to climate change and taking the necessary steps requires being provided with clear information from the organizations that businesses and individuals use daily to quantify personal and organizational carbon emissions. While legislative oversight exists for older industries such as automotive — where transgressions can be dealt with relatively harshly — technology’s impact on the environment is much more opaque, much more so when aiming for climate goals like absolute zero carbon emissions.

Large technology companies exist to profit for their shareholders and produce share dividends, while at the same time reducing carbon footprints to zero might be considered at variance with one another. There is undoubtedly a good deal of obfustication of statistics by large companies. Amazon, for example, has recently seen its carbon footprint rise by 19% over 2019’s figures, but due to the company’s rates of growth in that year, it claims its carbon intensity is falling: “While Amazon’s business grew significantly in 2020 and our absolute carbon emissions increased 19% during the same period, our overall carbon intensity decreased 16%, from 122.8 grams of CO2e per dollar of GMS [gross merchandise sales] in 2019 to 102.7 grams of CO2e per dollar of GMS in 2020,” the company stated.

In short, operations grew and polluted, but each individual operation created slightly less, even than its equivalent from the previous year. When individuals and businesses decide what they buy and from whom, statements like these need significant examination to get the best outcome for the environment. Meeting net carbon zero targets depends on policy decisions at a governmental level, as well as public and private choices made by businesses and the individuals in them.

The UK government’s £27.4 billion investment program to enlarge England’s motorways and invest in main road improvements is a case in point. Research has shown plainly that increasing road capacity does nothing but encourage greater car use. Motorway expansion, in particular, tends to produce wider road arteries that are swamped by local drivers taking advantage of faster short journeys rather than relieving congestion.

While many cities in the UK have their own airports, these tend to lie outside city boundaries. Local authorities’ climate strategies are predominantly focused on emissions released inside the city boundaries, and strategies often discount emissions produced by imports and services that local airport provides.

In one city in the UK, the Leeds City Council recently declared a climate emergency. Yet, it intends to expand Leeds Bradford Airport, bumping the number of passengers using flights from the facility from four to nine million by 2050.

While governments of all colors and Nations love the big-ticket splashes on technology-based low carbon measures like airplanes that don’t pollute, the current government has recently scrapped more straightforward measures like the UK’s green homes grant. The £1.5 million program offered households of between £5000 and £10,000 for low carbon (not quite zero) heating systems or roof insulation installation.

The poorly performing scheme had issued 28,000 grant vouchers from 123,000 applications (resulting in 5,800 energy efficiency measures being installed). The US company awarded the contract to administer the project was criticized, with consumers giving conflicting advice and installers complaining of excessive red tape.

Pool-performing schemes appear not to have dissuaded policymakers, however. In May 2020, the UK government announced a £166 million investment to develop green technology designed to reduce carbon. This scheme focuses on carbon capture and decarbonization of high emission sectors such as manufacturing and utilities.

The funding is to be awarded to innovators, businesses, and academics across the country. In March this year, the government also announced a £92 million investment to enable green innovators to create and extend green technologies, including energy storage, offshore wind farms, and biomass energy production.

With technology underpinning almost every aspect of any business’s operations, it is incumbent on the IT function in the UK and across the world to carefully consider the ecological ramifications of decisions throughout the lifecycle — from procurement to final decommissioning.

Personifying both a green product and a greener approach to business in general — it challenges the assumption that growth is good — Riversimple represents an excellent example of a circular economy and transport ideals.

The UK’s position is presently as a leader in in the green governance arena, with its intentions for the country to be carbon neutral well-known and slated to take place relatively soon. For that to be achieved, technology has to play its role — in day-to-day operations, in clarity as to the environmental impact of operations, in procurement, and in examining the claims and counterclaims of the technology providers.