Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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

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CDP Data Collection: Do We Need to Audit Corporate IS Used to Report Carbon Emissions?

[Full disclosure: I’ve worked with CDP over the years and have used its data for research purposes.]

Reviewing CDP’s latest information request, I’m struck by the lack of questions about the digital systems companies use to capture, store, analyze, and report the data requested by CDP.

Why is this important?

Reason #1: Data quality

The quality of these systems affects the quality of the information reported. For example, a dedicated cloud-based system with real-time access to the latest emission factors has clear advantages over an in-house developed spreadsheet. Yet CDP provides zero insight into the quality of foundational information systems used by respondents.

Reason #2: Complexity

Investing in and implementing the right information system to fit organizational objectives is non-trivial, evidenced by the high failure rate of IS projects.

Reason #3: Governance

Information systems are typically governed by information systems personnel, or jointly by IS and a particular business function. My own research reveals that for energy and carbon IS, facilities and sustainability experts are leading the charge. Is this optimal? Who should manage these systems? What sorts of governance structures might mitigate risk and ensure robust systems over time?

Reason #4: Regulatory Compliance

In many areas of the world, binding regulations are in place regarding corporate reporting of carbon emissions. It would make sense for investors (and other interested stakeholders) to have some transparency into the information systems (technologies, processes, and people) that produce these numbers. Moreover, one can foresee an audit function analogous to that for accounting information systems used for financial reporting (source):

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Bottom line: Either CDP and other third-party data platforms need to request data about information systems used for carbon emissions management, or, we need a robust carbon accounting IS audit function to assure the validity of processes, technologies, and human work practices used to report carbon emissions. Otherwise, doubts about data veracity will likely persist and hamper the positive efforts of reporting firms and data collection agencies.

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Mainstream Corporate Sustainability Wakes Up to Role of Digital Systems

In mid/late-2000s (when I started this blog), the role of digital information systems seemed to be an afterthought in the corporate environmental sustainability conversation (no sources to back this up: just based on my own observations. exception: Peter Graf at SAP). It’s one of the reasons I started this blog.

Digitization transformed organizations and enhanced corporate financial performance in decades past (and continues to do so). Likewise, digital systems enhance/transform corporate environmental performance (reduce carbon emissions, raise energy productivity, enhance water stewardship, etc.). Mainstream corporate sustainability appears to be waking up to this enormous opportunity.


EU ETS specifies that: “the information technology system is designed, documented, tested, implemented, controlled and maintained in a way to process reliable, accurate and timely data.”

The IIRC emphasizes the systems nature of digital information systems: “The IT strategy should extend beyond hardware and software considerations alone to identify the role of emerging applications, establish related policies and align technology-related decisions to strategy

Sustainable Brands New Metrics Conference 2015 reaches out to IT experts:
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But there’s a long way to go…

Using digital information systems to transform environmental sustainability practices within organizations is complex and risky, involving people, processes, and technologies. Research is needed to inform salient questions, such as:

  • Who should lead such strategic initiatives?
  • Where to begin?
  • Which specific technologies are most effective in which contexts?
  • How to determine ROI of such initiatives?
  • How to bridge the culture gap between industrial ecologists/facilities and IT personnel?

As usual, more questions than answers.

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Internet of Things and C3 Energy – Implications for Energy Management

The Internet of Things, or IoT for short, refers to a network of physical devices connected via sensors with data and intelligence capabilities. In a way, it’s merely an extension of the Internet of computers to an Internet of physical things like trains, people, and wind turbines. For example, the network may look like a wind farm in which one turbine senses a change in wind direction, alters its blade pitch to optimize efficiency, and tells the other turbines to do so.

The basic ideas have been around for some time, but recent advances in storage, communication, and processing have enabled the vision to become a reality.

One implementation of the IoT is by GE, which refers to its IoT as the “Industrial Internet”. GE is developing a platform that allows developers from any company to quickly develop apps to power their own equipment and leverage GEs infrastructure of storage, processing, etc.

In the energy domain, C3 has just announced its own Internet of Things platform called Cyberphysix. According to the email I received this morning, this is a “platform for deploying industrial-scale cyber physical applications for the energy industry” that “offers [an] integrated suite of services for developers to rapidly develop and deploy IoT applications in an open, scalable, secure environment.” C3 says that Cyberphysix is used now at “numerous” large global companies. An example is Enel:

“Enel, the largest power company in Italy and the second largest in the world, is deploying C3 Energy Smart Grid Analytics solutions as its software platform for enabling Enel smart grid and smart city services. The rollout of C3 Energy Smart Grid solutions across 44 million meters in Italy and Spain will be the largest software‐as‐a‐service (SaaS) smart grid applications deployment in the world with the potential to deliver €15 per meter in annual economic benefit.

So what does this mean for the future of energy management? It’s hard to say at this early stage, but a few things are clear:

  1. As predicted years ago, energy is being transformed by digital technologies, leading to new business models and potentially enabling a new wave of energy efficiency, deployment of renewables, and reduced GHG emissions.
  2. The future energy management leader knows as much about PAAS, IoT, cloud, and BI as she does about kWh, line voltage, and FERC regulations.
  3. There will be platform competition and a potential winner take all market (see iTunes).

It will be interesting to see how these platforms evolve as their success will depend to some extent on how many members join and succeed.

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HSBC: Accelerated Drive to Low Carbon Economy is Better for Global Economies

Nick Robins, head of the Climate Change Centre of Excellence at HSBC, discusses benefits, costs and risks of a transition to a low-carbon economy last September at the Stockholm meeting of the Global Challenges Foundation.

Nick calls this “disruptive change” and describes a “digital networks” wave of disruption giving way to a “climate business” wave of disruption. I would agree, though I think the interesting opportunities lie in the transition from digital networks to climate business.

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HICSS Conference Keynote Speaker: Green IT Innovator Shwetak Patel


The keynote speaker of the annual HICSS conference, happening now, is Shwetak Patel, director of the Ubicomp lab at UW and Green IT innovator. Shwetak is reviewing many of the problems I’ve talked about in this blog, in particular, poor information on energy and water use in the home. One angle on this is “Single sensors,” which use machine learning to back out which appliances are drawing which currents.

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The choice of Shwetak to address the entire conference in this keynote session underscores the importance of the role of IT in enabling and transforming environmental sustainability, energy reductions, and so forth. The conversation that a few of us began years ago finally appears to be gaining mainstream acceptance. Well done to the conference organizers for making this insightful choice.

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Climate Change Knowns and Unknowns – Professional Responsibility of Scholars Who Don’t Study Climate Science

What professional responsibility do scholars who don’t study climate science have to their students and others who look to them for knowledge about climate change and potential solutions? How to respond to such questions in terms of the nature of the problem, its implications, and approaches for mitigating and adapting to the problem?

Science of Climate Change (nature of problem)

Regarding the science of climate change itself, based on their developed scientific expertise 97% of well-published climate scientists agree that “anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century,” according to a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another peer reviewed study, this time of 3,146 earth scientists finds a similar result: 90% respond “risen” to the question “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant? and 82% answer Yes to “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

To emphasize, these are the views of truth-seeking scientific experts who study various aspects of climate change and subject their analyses to rigorous peer review and criticism within scientific journals and in research lectures.

Implications of Climate Change (impact of problem)

Regarding the implications of rising mean global temperatures on human life, there’s been widespread research on impacts to food and water supplies, human health, economic growth, conflict and security, disease, etc. For example, a recent study of “Climate Change Impacts on Global Food Security” in Science results in a set of precepts, including

  • Climate change impacts on food security will be worst in countries already suffering high levels of hunger and will worsen over time
  • The consequences for global undernutrition and malnutrition of doing nothing in response to climate change are potentially large and will increase over time
  • Food inequalities will increase, from local to global levels, because the degree of climate change and the extent of its effects on people will differ from one part of the world to another, from one community to the next, and between rural and urban areas.

Overall, and according to the latest 2014 IPCC report: “Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).” IPCC goes on to summarize that: “Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and challenging irreversible impacts”

Importantly, some effects of climate change are impacting human life now, including increased coastal flooding, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, more frequent and intense heat waves, forest death in the Rocky Mountains, and changing seasons.

Mitigating and Adapting to Climate Change (solutions)

Regarding solutions, arguments can be made for a variety of approaches, including moving away from fossil fuels by pricing the CO2 externality, technological ingenuity, dietary changes away from beef and toward local and organic foods, carbon sequestration, adoption of low-carbon energy sources, enacting regulations, etc.


Two Fundamental Tenets of Professional Responsibility

So what is the professional responsibility of non-climate science scholars in the face of the above knowns and unknowns? I propose two basic principles:

P1 Clarity in communicating consensus of climate scholars and what their research says: most of global warming is being caused by increased concentrations of carbon emissions from human activities such as the use of fossil fuels.  

P2 Clarity in communicating the scientific understanding that impacts of climate change are occurring now, and the range and intensity of impacts is likely to increase and be more negative than positive in the future, creating significant risks. 


Below, I provide two example statements from professors who are not climate scientists that illustrate alignment and misalignment with the two principles.


1. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of political science in the environmental studies program at the University of  Colorado.

Roger uses a simple and easy-to-understand “bathtub model” of carbon dioxide buildup on page 9 of his book “The Climate Fix,” clearly fulfilling P1. He goes on to say that “Many, if not most, scientists believe that the impacts [of accumulating carbon dioxide] will be on balance negative and significant,” in line with P2.

These statements align with P1 and P2 and indicate professional responsibility.


2. Jaana Woiceshyn is an associate professor of strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

Jaana has recently written that “there has been no significant global warming in the last century” and “CO2 is not a significant cause of temperature fluctuations”.

These statements contradict P1 and do not indicate professional responsibility.