Digital solutions for environmental sustainability: acatech STUDY examines the current situation and potential
Munich, 06 April 2023
Digitalisation and sustainability are not contradictory; rather, they must be thought of strategically as two parts of one whole. A new acatech STUDY has conducted an evaluation of digital solutions that are available across various sectors of industry, which both have a positive impact on environmental sustainability and generate economic benefit. However, the full potential of these solutions can only be exploited if a change in the kind of economy we have is considered, write the authors.
Digitalisation and sustainability are two modern-day leitmotifs. In a complex, growing society, digitalisation can pave the way to prosperity for all by facilitating more efficient work processes. On the other hand, sustainability – in the sense of using renewable resources and greater conservation – is essential to sustain the bases of life in the long-term.
Constructive options taken from environmental and economic market study
The acatech STUDY “Digitainability” points out that it is possible to reconcile the two leitmotifs. It looks at digital solutions already available in eight sectors of German industry that are having a positive impact on environmental sustainability, and evaluates their economic potential. The study also shows that digital solutions can increase environmental sustainability in ways other than increasing efficiency. Other ways that must be considered, according to the study, are changes in patterns of consumption or the economic form (circular economy).
“Digital solutions provide huge opportunities in all sectors of industry to combine value creation and sustainability. The study shows that the use of digital solutions to increase the efficiency of systems and processes is the first step.”
Stephan Ramesohl, Co-Head of Research Unit Digital Transformation at Wuppertal Institut, who was responsible for the environmental market study in the project
An example from the leading sector “construction and real estate”: using Building Information Models (BIMs), it is possible to conduct CO2 analyses in relation to heating based on digital building models. On the one hand, this enables potential savings to be identified; on the other, BIMs allow for building energy optimisation right at the planning stage. Digitalisation can be a catalyst for positive environmental impacts especially in the construction industry. “In the short to medium term, energy consumption and emissions in the building sector can be cut by around 20 per cent by having smart, digital heating. This is substantial in view of the climate protection targets. However, in the medium to long term, digitalisation also plays a central role in supplying the sector with renewable energy in a targeted way,” states Severin Beucker, founder of the Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability, who was consulted as part of the study.
There is also a focus on digital solutions used in the agriculture sector. In this sector, for instance, special farm robots can weed crops mechanically and autonomously. The robots are equipped with camera and laser sensors and use AI to distinguish between crops and weeds. Since pesticides are not needed when robots are used, biodiversity and soil fertility are maintained, and there is no chemical residue on the food. The fully electric robots also run on renewable electricity.
Focus on digital solutions that facilitate circular business models
The study comes to the conclusion that while digital technologies that both increase efficiency and have positive effects on environmental sustainability are already in use in all relevant sectors of industry today, their potential is far from being fully utilised. “There is much greater economic and environmental potential to reduce emissions and environmental impact through the use and development of digital solutions that facilitate sustainable, circular business models,” said Stephan Ramesohl.
In addition, according to the study, the environmental footprint of the digital technologies used must be borne in mind: AI applications in particular require enormous computing power and, so, use up vast amounts of resources.
Project Manager and acatech Vice-President Christoph M. Schmidt agrees on this point, and would like to see further efforts on this front. “Digitalisation can be a crucial component in decoupling prosperity from negative environmental externalities. For this to occur, digital technologies must be enhanced, as must their use in environmentally sustainable, digital solutions in companies. There must also be a deeper, productive relationship between economic incentives and environmental sustainability.”