OPINION: Can using data better help Britain get to net-zero?

by Trevor Hutchings | Gemserv
Friday, 2 October 2020 12:33 GMT

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks at doors of washing machines at Ebac electrical appliances manufacturer during a General Election campaign trail stop in Newton Aycliffe, Britain November 20, 2019. Frank Augstein/Pool via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Technology that makes finding a parking spot easier or running the washing machine when power is cheap can help - but privacy issues remain a concern

Trevor Hutchings is director of strategy at Gemserv

As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic is right now, it is but one of a series of systemic crises that the world is currently facing, from a rise in global poverty to unprecedented biodiversity loss.

Climate change also needs to be added to the list – the result of which could potentially “dwarf” COVID’s effects, as Prince Charles recently warned.

Fortunately, the climate emergency hasn’t sprung up from nowhere. We’ve had time to study it and prepare. Importantly, government commitments are in place, with the UK a trailblazer with its legally-binding target on ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050.

Contrary to expectations, UK policy-makers face a surfeit of potential technological solutions to the challenge of rapid decarbonisation. Such choice can actually prove paralysing. As the Institute of Government recently pointed out, the word “uncertainty” appears 18 times in the UK government’s 2017 Clean Growth Strategy.

An illustration of this very real dilemma is provided by the citizen-led Climate Assembly UK, which earlier this month released a mammoth 556-page report on how to achieve Net-Zero. The group’s recommendations included ramping up investment in electric cars, offshore wind farms, home retrofits and heat networks, to name but a few.

Enter the role of data. Recent advances in digital computing make possible a level of analysis and insight that was unthinkable even a few years ago.

No longer do policymakers need to “take a punt” on which new technologies might prove most effective. Data-driven modelling can, alongside other evidence, offer empirical verdicts on such dilemmas, helping policy makers and politicians to make the tough but necessary choices.

Not only that, but modern data solutions can maximise the green technologies that we already have. Consider a simple parking app. Globally, more than one million barrels of oil are burned every day by people driving around on the hunt for free parking spaces. The answer? Install a network of low-power sensors and smart parking metres (as in cities from Los Angeles to Beijing). Hey presto, up flashes the nearest spot on the driver’s phone. 

Data can also overcome another huge hurdle for achieving a net-zero future, namely consumer intransigence. Although consumers are increasingly predisposed to take account of climate change, the inconvenience and general hassle of going green often puts them off. Data solutions can not only remove the hassle factor, but even enhance the consumer experience.

Domestic electricity provides a case in point. With the introduction of smart metres and internet-enabled household devices, the power to run energy-intensive devices like a washing machine can be automatically timed for when the homeowner’s supply is cheapest and greenest.

As operators of a system that enables consumers to switch power providers, at Gemserv we have first-hand experience of the dramatic impact that data can have on consumer behaviour. We handle over 34 million enquiries from energy companies every year with this information used to help customers switch to a better energy deal.

A data-driven approach to achieving net-zero, however, isn’t without its potential obstacles. The most obvious centres on privacy.

Not everyone wants their fridge or shower collecting data on their household habits, even if it is for a good cause. Introducing clear and enforceable protocols on data collection and data use, as recently recommended by the government’s Energy Data Taskforce, can go a long way to quietening such fears.

A robust public data system that allows for the sharing and analysis of datasets in real time also offers flexibility to regulators. While non-negotiable issues like consumer protection and energy system resilience must remain strictly regulated, data can support more principles-based and outcome-focused approaches in lower-risk areas.   

A good example of this is the roll-out of electric vehicles. The government’s EV Energy Taskforce recommends that standards and codes of practice are needed across the sector. Progressive regulation should set the outcomes to be achieved, leaving industry to bring forward the technical protocols and innovation required, with data the enabler. 

Data is no panacea. The hard work of developing, installing and optimising cleantech and other solutions still has to happen if the UK is to achieve its net-zero ambitions. But smart use of data can ease that workload, bringing efficiencies to a policy challenge for which the clock is ticking.