Evidence is emerging about the impact of digital technology on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and its importance is clear. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and Accenture say digital technologies can help the energy, materials and mobility industries cut emissions by 4-10% by 2030.1 PwC estimates that artificial intelligence could cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 4% by 2030 2, and Capgemini reports that the climate potential of artificial intelligence is 16% in various sectors.3

However, despite the proven impact of these technologies, organizations do not have enough urgency to apply them to accelerate decarbonization and reduce emissions. 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 challenges. As justification, they cite the immaturity of existing solutions, the need for further study or adjustment, and problems ranging from intermittent renewable energy supplies to a lack of confidence in existing carbon trading schemes.

MIT Technology Review Insights conducted a global survey to explore the use, plans and readiness of industry leaders to use digital technologies to achieve decarbonization targets. The survey was directed at 350 executives of major global companies in eight major sectors to gather their views on these decisions. Insights were also derived from in-depth discussions with nine subject matter experts.

Here are the main findings of the study:

Digitization is the foundation that will support the energy transition. Despite the differences across industries (and regions), digital technologies are considered important (from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important) for optimizing efficiency and reducing energy and waste (overall score 6.8 ); design and optimization of carbon absorption technologies (6,7); ensuring availability, verification and transparency of data on sustainable development (6.2); monitoring of GHG absorbers (6.6); and designing and optimizing low-carbon energy systems (5.8).

For most industries, the main lever of decarbonization is the circular economy. The majority (54%) of participants from all industries (except petrochemicals) cite the circular economy4 as their dominant environmental sustainability goal. The circular economy minimizes waste by reducing consumption, increasing efficiency and recapturing resources and energy. The second most highly rated sustainable development goal is improving access to clean energy (41%), and the third is improving 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 partnering with suppliers (31%). However, executives are less likely to emphasize the importance of open standards and data sharing across the supply chain to accelerate digital deployment (especially in energy, metals and mining, construction and petrochemicals), with only 16% identifying it as a top enabler. However, experts say the adoption of open standards and data sharing — essential to AI and ML’s ability to overcome complexities — to optimize the supply chain is “inevitable” to meet decarbonisation goals.

Attitudes towards technology adoption and innovation vary by sector and region. While cybersecurity is ranked as the biggest external barrier to digital transformation overall (58%), construction companies are significantly more concerned (76%), while steel and mining companies are less concerned (47%). Overall, 11% of respondents intend to experiment with early-stage digital technologies, but some sectors are less enthusiastic: only 4% in metals and mining, 5% in petrochemicals and 6% in industrial manufacturing. Buy-in and a willingness to learn are important for collaboration between departments and organizations.

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