leeds.tech / features

Race to Net Zero – Where on earth is the starting line?

Leeds Digital Festival 2021 will run as usual, with in person (government restrictions allowing) and online events this autumn. However, as part of the Festival, which is now in its 6th year, the organisers arranged for a few days of tech filled fun to be delivered online this April.

As one of the free online events celebrating digital culture, an online discussion about Net Zero was hosted on Microsoft Teams. I was lucky enough to book myself a spot on the call, and so on Tuesday 27th April, I joined about 50 other people, many of whom were business owners, and tuned in to a discussion on all things Net Zero.

The event was essentially a panel discussion between some really interesting people, such as Dr David McKee from Slingshot Simulations.  Slingshot is enabling organisations to develop digital twins, used to inform decisions and obtain insights without the consequences of trial and error; and Sally Walker, who is the founder Human Digital Thinking, the exDirector of Cyber GCHQ and a campaigner at local level for issues such as environmental protection and community resilience.

The two hour discussion began with an introduction to net zero, clarifying what it is for the audience and ensuring that all panellists were on the same page. Put simply, it is a state in which there is a balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere against those that are taken out.  Net zero has become a ‘modern zeitgeist’ for organisations and citizens alike and as a result, most organisations want to achieve it.

A poll was launched during the event to ask attendees if they had already been considering net zero strategies.  73% of people on the call stated that they had. However, despite net zero being ‘fashionable’ and many people considering it in their workplace, becoming a net zero organisation is something that many companies struggle to do. I found it interesting to hear that many companies, especially the largest ones, have committed to net zero goals and recognise the importance of striving for this, but that many still face challenges of balancing these goals against their need to maintain a competitive edge.

The panel moved on to discuss what it means to commit to net zero, and shared ideas for how companies can adapt to ensure that they can meet these goals but still compete in the business world. Audience members engaged in the debate, sharing their ideas and experiences in the chat function of the call. One attendee argued that housing is one area where net zero ambitions need to be considered, highlighting that in addition to making commitments at the managerial level, a larger and better trained workforce is needed to retrofit housing stock to ensure they are better insulated and more environmentally friendly. Another attendee looked at it from a landscape point of view and asked the panel about the potential for organisations to encourage reforestation. The panellists suggested that it is also important to protect existing forests and woodlands owing to the time it takes for a newly planted tree to grow and absorb the same amount of carbon as an established tree.

Some examples of organisations who are starting to tackle the issue of balancing net zero goals with business goals were provided. For instance, many companies are harnessing big data and digital twins as ‘tools for the race’, helping such organisations to gain insights into what impact their net zero commitments could have on business and therefore giving them the opportunity to prepare and select the best approaches to move forward. As the concept of a digital twin was new to me, I was glad that one of the panellists explained that it is a virtual representation of an object or process, proving a real-time digital counterpart for experimentation. Supporting the use of digital twins in organisations, a poll during the call revealed that 44% of attendees had considered making a digital twin for their business.

The panel discussion concluded with audience members and panellists examining possible steps forward. One audience member suggested that large organisations should be taking the lead in the ambition for net zero, with clear pre-requisites in place to ensure business decisions are made with net zero in mind. The same audience member also argued that businesses of all sizes should take an interest in the climate crisis and working towards carbon neutrality and net zero as soon as they can.

Whilst I joined the call, not as a business owner, but as a concerned citizen, and as such some of the topics and challenges discussed were very new to me, I learned a lot about net zero and the importance of striving to achieve net zero goals.

I am looking forward to attending more Leeds Digital Festival events in the autumn (hopefully in actual venues).  Updates for this will be shared on the Leeds Digital Festival website and social media channels.