Digital technologies: the backbone of a net-zero future

Data is emerging on the impact of digital technologies on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the implications are clear. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and Accenture say digital technologies can help the energy, materials and mobility industries reduce emissions by 4% to 10% by 2030.1 PwC estimates that AI alone can reduce global emissions by greenhouse gases by 4% by 20302, while Capgemini reports that the climate potential of AI puts the figure at 16% across multiple sectors.3

However, despite the proven impact of these technologies, organizations lack the urgency to adopt them to accelerate decarbonisation and emission reduction targets. Across the industry, many leaders are leveraging partners to support digital transformation, while the energy transition remains a secondary goal. Digital and sustainability leaders take a surprisingly conservative approach to technology that fails to address current issues. As justification, they cite the immaturity of existing solutions, the need for further research or customization, and challenges ranging from intermittent supplies of renewable energy to a lack of confidence in existing carbon trading schemes.

MIT Technology Review Insights conducted a global survey to examine the use, plans and readiness of industry leaders to adopt digital technologies to achieve decarbonization goals. The survey targeted 350 C-level executives at major global companies across eight major sectors to gather their perceptions of these decisions. Insights were also gleaned from in-depth discussions with nine subject matter experts.

The following are the main findings of the study:

Digitization is the backbone that will support the energy transition. Despite differences between industries (and between regions), digital technologies are considered important (rated from 1 to 10, where 10 is most important) for optimizing efficiency and reducing energy and waste (overall score 6.8); design and optimization of carbon capture technologies (6.7); making sustainability data accessible, verifiable and transparent (6.2); monitoring of GHG sinks (6.6); and designing and optimizing energy systems with a low carbon footprint (5.8).

For most industries, the main lever for decarbonisation is the circular economy. The majority (54%) of participants from all industries (except petrochemicals) cite the circular economy4 as their dominant environmental sustainability objective. The circular economy minimizes waste with reduced consumption, increased efficiency and reuse of resources and energy. The second highest rated sustainability goal is to improve access to clean energy (41%), and the third is to improve energy efficiency (40%).

Partnering with technology experts is how the industry innovates with digital solutions. The most cited approach to adopting new digital technologies is through supplier partnerships (31%). However, executives were less likely to emphasize the importance of open standards and data sharing across the supply chain in accelerating the adoption of digital technologies (particularly in energy, metals and mining, construction and petrochemicals), with only 16% identifying it as a top activator. Still, experts say the adoption of open standards and data sharing — essential to AI and ML’s ability to overcome complexity — to streamline the supply chain is “inevitable” to achieving decarbonization goals.

Attitudes towards technology adoption and innovation vary by sector and region. Although cybersecurity is considered the biggest external barrier to digital transformation overall (58%), construction companies are much more concerned (76%), while steel and mining companies are less concerned (47%). Overall, 11% of respondents are keen to experiment with digital technologies early on, but some sectors are less enthusiastic: just 4% in metallurgy and mining, 5% in petrochemicals and 6% in industrial production. Inclusion and a willingness to learn are essential for collaboration between departments and organizations.

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