13 July 2021

Managing the climate crisis starts with measurement

By Kulveer Ranger

When it comes to addressing major challenges – the type of issues that keep policymakers awake at night – Michael Bloomberg has a favourite phrase: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.

That was the mantra he recited when, as Mayor of New York, his team wanted to learn from Transport for London how the successful  “Boris Bike”  cycle-hire scheme could be applied in the Big Apple. Mr Bloomberg’s belief was that only by educating ourselves about the right behaviours and processes, and measuring their impact, can we deliver positive change. 

I then heard this mantra repeated throughout Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership of the C40 Cities group, a network of the world’s megacities where I represented London, that is dedicated to addressing climate change – and in the context of this monumental challenge, the importance of measurement never felt more pronounced.

It’s time to match words with actions

The point feels especially relevant in light of the recent Climate Change Committee report on the UK’s progress towards meeting its Net Zero goals, which awarded the Government an “A” for ambition but a less flattering assessment of its delivery. In order to meet our climate goals, the Committee suggested, the time has come to stop talking and start doing.

This sentiment could have been also applied equally to UK businesses, and it must serve as a wake-up call to both. There is now a mass of businesses which have developed strategies for decarbonisation but comparably few which are converting their ambition to reality.

There are many impediments to progress but if we are not measuring, how can we tell where we are heading? In the past few weeks I’ve spoken at three different conferences where discussion topics have ranged from designing the next emerging use case and energy impact of edge servers, to urban infrastructure and the environmental impact of exponential growth of last-mile delivery in cities, and in each case the role of accurate data has been absolutely central.

Thanks to the groundwork laid over recent decades by governments, scientists and leaders like David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, the understanding of the need and speed for change has been cemented in the minds of most populations. But only with accurate information can organisations understand the impact, progress and whether they are making the right choices.

Measuring our full carbon footprint

Until now, most organisations have been able to focus on reducing emissions under their direct ownership or operational control – but to reach Net Zero they will also need to address the “Scope Three” emissions that lie within their wider supply and partner chain, which in some cases can reach 80% of their overall footprint).

Currently, too many businesses are not equipped with the tools to understand and monitor the underlying sources of these emissions, let alone those of their suppliers. However, by utilising digital technologies and data capturing platforms they can achieve a data-driven, real-time picture of their Scope Three climate impact. 

Furthermore, by broadening access to shared platforms and measurement tools that allow organisations to work together on understanding, measuring and reducing the emissions generated through their supply chains, businesses can progress to a collaborative and mutually supportive set of carbon reduction activities and solutions. 

Nowhere is this truer than in the technology sector itself. We are managing to generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day and need a huge amount of energy to process and store this data, meaning the decarbonisation of data centres will be vital to mitigating our collective impact on the planet. More work is needed to understand and address this challenge. But it will take action from all businesses involved, from the design, build and usage requirements placed on data centres, to achieve the optimised trinity of energy efficiency, cost savings and carbon reductions.

Bringing businesses on the journey

Boris Johnson has been here before. As his Environment advisor during his tenure as Mayor of London a decade ago, we worked closely together on his vision for London to become the electric vehicle capital of the world.

It was a bold ambition, at a time when electric vehicles were not readily available, technology and infrastructure had yet to mature, and there was huge scepticism from the public. Boris knew that he would need the private sector to match his commitment to the cause – designing, producing and marketing the cars as well as supporting the public sector and councils to establishing a charging network that could make his vision a reality.

A decade on, his ambition is becoming a reality, with rapidly growing infrastructure across the capital and the country, and electric vehicles now part of the core range for every major manufacturer. There is more to do, but thanks to the full commitment of both government and industry, the electric driving future is arriving fast. Net zero is a far bigger challenge, and the need to tackle it together is just as acute. But the Prime Minister has shown he has the political drive not just to establish a vision, but to mobilise the private sector in helping him to achieve it. 

The first step is to ensure businesses are encouraged to use the tools at their disposal to take the action required. So in planning his next steps after this week’s troubling Climate Change Committee report, Mr Johnson and all ministers who have a role in supporting this policy would be wise to remember the words of Michael Bloomberg: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.

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Kulveer Ranger is board member and deputy president for economy & productivity at techUK, Global Head of Strategy & Communications at Atos FS&I, and former digital adviser to London mayor Boris Johnson.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.