Spark and sustainability firm thinkstep-anz today launched new research, Meeting the climate challenge through digital technology, that quantifies the role digital technology plays in reducing emissions and identifies what these opportunities look like across different sectors.
International studies have identified the role digital technology can play in helping reduce emissions globally. However, these studies do not account for New Zealand’s agriculture-heavy emissions profile and the amount of renewable electricity we generate.
This new research reveals the local opportunity for the first time. It combines insights from global research, modelling by the Climate Change Commission, thinkstep-anz’s expertise in environmental modelling, and Spark’s knowledge of current and future opportunities for digital technology.
The results show that digital technology could help reduce 7.2 million tonnes of emissions at 2030. To put this reduction into context, New Zealand need to reduce emissions by 17.0 million tonnes to meet its Emissions Budget at 2030 – meaning digital technology can help deliver the equivalent of 42% of the reductions we need to achieve over this period.
Spark CEO Jolie Hodson commented on the motivation behind the research: “We know that the window to act to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is closing fast, and this requires urgent action across all sectors of our economy. We also know that digital technology can enable cross-sector transformation, but as a country we have not yet been deliberate in exploring the full extent of how these technologies can be applied to emissions reduction, which means the role of technology is not prominent in our climate change planning.
“Right now, technologies are rapidly evolving and converging, unlocking new use-cases and sustainability benefits. The role of digital technology in enabling decarbonisation is broad* – it provides secure access to remote services, which helps people to reduce commuting; it can connect and monitor physical assets and natural environments, which creates insights that people and systems can then act on; it can influence behaviour; and it underpins the creation of low-carbon industries and jobs.
“Our aim in undertaking this research is to guide action – in our own business and sector, and in other businesses and sectors – that will support Aotearoa’s transition to a low carbon and climate resilient future.”
CEO of thinkstep-anz, Barbara Nebel adds, “The study shows how important data is to make the right decisions to drive change. Analysing data on this study has helped us identify the sectors and solutions where digital technology offers greatest potential to help decarbonise Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s been an exciting project to work on with Spark, and it may help us meet our crucial national goal – net-zero by 2050.”
The biggest opportunities: transport, energy and industry, and agriculture
The most significant opportunities to reduce emissions through digital technology lie in the country’s three largest emitting sectors – transport (2.9 Mt reduction modelled), energy and industry (2.4 Mt), and agriculture (1.9 Mt).
The reductions modelled include activities already factored into the first national Emissions Reduction Plan, as well as new opportunities that the research process has identified. Examples** include:
Transport: the report includes a 1.5 Mt reduction through reduced transportation in light passenger vehicles, incorporating a 400,000-tonne saving through remote working. This is based on Statistics NZ data that showed in the three months to June 2020, during Covid, almost a million New Zealanders worked virtually from home with the help of technology. The modelled saving assumes the same number of people move to hybrid working in the future, splitting their time equally between home and work.
Energy and industry: the report includes an annual 100,000-tonne saving by 2030 from controlling EV charging. Shifting energy demand at peak times is an important tool to reduce reliance on thermal generation and support the decarbonisation of the grid. This saving was modelled from a real-life case study from EV charger manufacturer and installation company Evnex, which develops smart charging technology connected to the Spark CAT-M1 IoT network. These connected chargers are capable of being used to shift charging loads to off-peak times.
Agriculture: recognising that digital technology will be one part of a larger system change, the report takes a conservative approach to modelling opportunities available in this sector. The primary opportunity is to provide information to farmers on the drivers of on-farm emissions, to support decision making. The study modelled four precision agriculture use cases, which enabled: a reduction in fertiliser application; targeted application of a nitrous oxide inhibitor; improved animal health and productivity; and reduced pesticide use in horticulture.
The bigger picture
Hodson points out that while the report reviews opportunities by sector to enable action, digital technology cuts across many sectors and supports climate adaptation as well as mitigation.
“Our partnership with Christchurch City Council and Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) in Waitākiri Bottle Lake Forest Park is a great example. This was an initiative born out of the devastating Port Hills fires, and from a recognition that climate change will cause more of these extreme weather events in the future.
“Right now, among the 800 hectares of pine trees and native ferns, we have five thermal imaging sensors with AI capability constantly surveying the forest. They pick up on early fire signs and send this data back to FENZ in real time so they can act.
“Now this is one example, with a singular purpose, in one of our forests. But imagine a world where we had this kind of environmental modelling embedded across all our natural and physical assets – from forests and lakes to our roads and the grid. It would mean we could pool data sources and better understand our country’s health and the results our interventions are delivering.”
From insight to action
The report includes recommendations for national policy, the digital technology sector, the business community, and the country as a whole.
Hodson continued, “Quantifying emissions reduction potential is only worthwhile if it directs action, and that has been our focus. From a national policy perspective, we believe digital technology should be integrated into sector strategies within the next Emissions Reduction Plan, that digital infrastructure risks should be incorporated into risk assessments and adaptation plans, and that digital equity should be included in the Just Transition plan.
“We know that there are up to 1 in 5 New Zealanders who may be digitally excluded right now, and that Māori, Pacific peoples, and our more vulnerable communities are over-represented in these figures. With digitisation set to continue accelerating as businesses decarbonise, our country’s digital divide requires urgent attention.
“For our own sector, it is on us to engage with the key sectors identified in this report to build technology into their plans, and to use those roadmaps to guide our own investments in digital infrastructure and technologies. We also believe there is more we can do as an industry to pursue a sector-wide approach to physical adaption risk, which we are keen to explore. For Spark specifically, we are very firmly focussed not only on helping other businesses with their emissions reductions, but on reducing emissions in our own business too – and our science-based emissions reduction target remains a priority.
“And for businesses more broadly, when it comes to technology, we always say to start with the outcome you want and then work back to the technology. So the first step is to understand your emissions or the sustainability outcomes you want to achieve, and to then seek input into how technology can play a role. As we have shown in this report the opportunities are extensive – and the time to start is now.”
Notes to editor
The full report, Meeting the climate challenge through digital technology, is available here. It includes modelled case studies for each of the identified sectors. It includes modelled case studies for each of the identified sectors.
Scope and methodology
The research analysis focuses on short-term opportunities in the ten-year period to 2030, aligned to New Zealand’s first two national emissions budgets. It includes:
- Analysis of global studies on the topic of emissions reduction enabled through digital technology;
- Analysis of New Zealand emissions pathways modelling and targets included in the Climate Change Commission advice to Government and the Government’s final Emissions Reduction Plan;
- Identification of current and emerging technology use cases in New Zealand, gathered through a series of interviews with subject matter experts;
- Modelling of a number of case study projects.
The emissions quantification methodology used is informed by the GeSI SMARTer2030 report, published in 2015. This provides a common industry methodology to quantify the reduction in emissions that digital technology makes possible.
The climate scenario modelling is aligned to the Climate Change Commission’s climate models published alongside Ināia tonu nei: a low emissions future for Aotearoa.
*See infographic on p11 of the research report
**See full report for all modelled reductions and additional case studies
As New Zealand's largest telecommunications and digital services company, Spark’s purpose is to help all of New Zealand win big in a digital world. Spark provides mobile, broadband, and digital services to millions of New Zealanders and thousands of New Zealand businesses.www.sparknz.co.nz
thinkstep-anz is an independent sustainability firm with offices across Australia and New Zealand. The company has been helping businesses succeed sustainably for more than 15 years. Services span sustainability strategy, technical solutions, certifications, reporting and plain English communications. www.thinkstep-anz.com