Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution


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Report: “Digital Efficiency: Driving Decarbonization and Unlocking Business Value Across Industries”

New report by Intel and GE describes some scenarios for how digital technologies can reduce emissions and cut costs in the fourth industrial age.2017-07-13 12.38.11 pm

One example is wind farm efficiency:

For example, GE’s PowerUp Platform has been extended to become the Digital Wind Farm. With this solution, GE extends analytics and optimization beyond a single wind turbine to the entire wind farm. GE harnessed the power of the emerging Industrial Internet to create the Digital Wind Farm, a dynamic, connected, and adaptable wind energy platform that pairs wind turbines in a wind farm with digital infrastructure to optimize efficiency across the entire wind farm. This platform can account for the wind farm’s topology, surrounding geography, wake effects, and other inputs to control individual wind turbines and optimize the operation as a whole. Through these techniques, the Digital Wind Farm technology boosts a wind farm’s energy production by up to 20 percent and could help generate up to an estimated $50 billion value for the wind industry. The Digital Wind Farm uses interconnected digital technology to address a long-standing need for greater flexibility in renewable power.

Overall, the report’s projections show significant potential, though much work is needed to translate potential into reality.

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COP21 Global Climate Deal – What’s in it & what’s the IT angle?

Here’s a summary from the BBC:

What are the key elements?

  • To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C

  • To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100

  • To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge

  • For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

 

And here’s a recently refined initiative develop by and applying to technology industry organizations (from WBCSD):

LCTPi is a unique initiative in terms of size, scale and potential impact. The global program is an unprecedented demonstration of the determination of business to collaborate across sectors and bring solutions to help governments in addressing climate change.

  • 9 LCTPi groups are in operation: renewable energy; carbon capture and storage; low carbon transport fuels; low carbon freight; cement; chemicals; energy efficiency in buildings; forests and climate smart agriculture.

  • 85 companies have made 93 endorsements of LCTPi (see annex 1) and are ready to move to implementation.

  • Over 1000 high level business representatives and policy makers have participated in international dialogues conducted across five continents and in all key emerging markets.


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Enterprise Information Systems Capability & GHG Pollution Emissions Reductions: New Analysis and New Results

At the upcoming International Conference on Information Systems, Daniel Rush will be presenting new research empirically examining the association between enterprise information systems capabilities and greenhouse gas emissions in large organizations. The research, co-authored with myself, Ron Ramirez, and Kevin Kobelsky, suggests that IS capabilities may be a critical enabler of achieving corporate sustainability goals. The program session is Tuesday from 3:00 – 3:30 pm. in the Convention Center. Drop by to hear more from Dan!

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Climate Risk Regulations Vs Enforced Regulations: The IT Elephant in the Room

In 2010 the SEC published “interpretive guidelines” for corporate disclosure of risks related to climate change, summarized in this table by Ceres (p. 8):

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The Interpretive Guidelines were hailed as an important step forward in providing material information to investors regarding climate change risks.

Did the Guidelines impact corporate disclosures in financial statements (10-Ks)?

Ceres analyzed all S&P 500 10-k filings from 2009 to 2013, finding that:

Most S&P 500 climate disclosures in 10-Ks are very brief, provide little discussion of material issues, and do not quantify impacts or risks. Based on this report’s 0-100 scoring scale, electric power companies received an average score of 16.7 for the quality of their SEC reporting—by far the highest industry average. Even within this group there was high variability in the quality of reporting. (Ceres, p. 5 [my emphasis in bold]).

What to make of these results?

Ceres recommends that the SEC: “devote increased attention to climate risk disclosure by issuing additional comment letters in response to inadequate disclosures, and educate registrants about how to comply with the Guidance.” (p. 28).

Regarding firms, Ceres essentially says: do a better job identifying climate risks and opportunities and disclosing these to the SEC. Ceres refers to the need for “systems, processes and controls to gather reliable information” but misses an important opportunity to address an underlying necessary condition to fulfilling SEC guidance:  implementing and managing specialized information systems for capturing, processing, and analyzing information related to energy, carbon emissions and other important environmental sustainability information.

It would be impossible for firms to comply with financial regulations without such systems, and it’s no different with environmental regulations. Imagine global corporations trying to comply with complex accounting and finance regulations using homegrown spreadsheet models developed and managed by one person: it wouldn’t work. The same applies to environmental regulations.

Here’s the bottom line.

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Guidance, regulations, board-level oversight, internal controls, emission reduction targets, management incentives, and reporting requirements are all well and good. But without addressing the IT elephant in the room – grossly inadequate information systems focused on environmental management information – I don’t foresee any significant changes in actions and impacts.


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New Research on Energy and Carbon Management Systems (ECMS)

Information systems for managing energy and carbon emissions data are critical to corporate environmental sustainability efforts.

Yet there is a lack of research on how these systems are adopted, used, implemented, etc.

To shed some light on this topic, I decided to explore how organizations are implementing and applying ECMS. Together with my colleague Ryan Whisnant, we looked at two different systems in two different organizations to identify patterns of use and make recommendations for practice.

Here’s the abstract and a link to the SSRN paper (a revised version of which is forthcoming at the Journal of Industrial Ecology):

This article examines an important class of information system (IS) that serves as the foundation for corporate energy and greenhouse gas accounting: energy and carbon management systems (ECMS). Investors, regulators, customers, and employees increasingly demand that organizations provide information about their organizational energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is little transparency about how organizations use ECMS to meet such demands. To shed light on ECMS implementation and application, we collected extensive qualitative interview data from two service-sector organizations: one that uses a spreadsheet-based ECMS and another that implemented an ECMS provided by a third-party vendor. Our analysis of collected data revealed numerous challenges in the areas of business processes, managerial capabilities, data capture and integration, and data quality. Though our results derive from only two organizations and require confirmation in large-sample surveys, we provide several general recommendations for organizations regarding ECMS. We also provide suggestions for future studies to build on our tentative results. Link: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2411879

While this paper represents an important early step in this research stream, much more needs to be done. In particular, one of the most important next steps would be to examine the business value implications of these systems.

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Visit to Mauna Loa Observatory

I just returned from the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) on the Big Island.

While there, I decided to take an extra day to visit the Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) located on the Mauna Loa Volcano.

As this is a research facility, I was fortunate to get access after contacting MLO Station Chief John Barnes (Thanks John).

Here’s me at 11,141 ft, chugging more air due to the reduced oxygen content.

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MLO is an important baseline for atmospheric CO2 measurement and is home to the famous Keeling Curve (here’s an interesting historical account from the American Institute of Physics). Physical scientist Aidan Colton showed me the original Keeling instrument and described its operation (IR spectrophotometry: measurement of reflection or transmission properties of a material as a function of wavelength). Here it is:

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Fast-forward to the digital age, and here’s the new equipment that is better-faster-cheaper:

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In addition to C02, I also got a great overview of solar radiation monitoring. Thanks Ben and Greg.

Concentrations of greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere are exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history. Given the connection between CO2 and global warming, we are entering uncharted waters for human life on earth.

We can’t all visit Mauna Loa to see CO2 measurement first-hand. But we can collaborate to find systemic ways to reduce CO2 emissions and make daily choices that are climate positive.

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