Last month, the "Digital Switzerland" strategy was updated, placing a sharper focus on achieving environmental protection goals through digitalization throughout Switzerland and incorporating the effects of the corona crisis. The strategy identifies nine fields of action which, among other things, should help to "reduce the ecological footprint and energy consumption (of Switzerland)" – one of the five core objectives of the strategy.
1. The energy system transition – the basis for sustainable digitalization
You soon realize why energy is at the heart of green digitalization. For example, the switch to video conferencing only exploits the full savings potential if the technologies used are also powered by renewable energies. This is not the only reason why the energy sector is under pressure to adapt. The energy consumption of private households, industry, and transport is responsible for over 75% of Switzerland's greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1990, however, greenhouse gas emissions per unit of final energy consumption have fallen sharply because of the increased use of non-fossil energy sources and the substitution of oil with natural gas. Decoupling digitalization and emissions therefore still remains the goal.
Digitalization is the underlying enabling factor of the energy system transition, as it allows us to navigate the complexity of the decentralized, renewable energy supply system. Digital innovations can help drive the energy system transition. In addition to the goal of ensuring a stable power supply, renewable energies must be expanded and climate-damaging emissions reduced. However, the expansion of the power grids is far from sufficient in this respect, so that decentralized, demand-oriented control is increasingly required. AI could support the decentralization of grids and control mechanisms by analyzing the necessary information about power supply and demand in real time and processing it by means of autonomous decision systems. It also enables optimized grid planning, the result of the intelligent interplay of energy production and energy consumption. Buildings will be equipped with smart metering systems that allow the best possible regulation of peak load and off-peak periods. In the future, for example, the surplus energy from non-controllable energy sources such as wind power could be stored at night in the batteries of empty electric cars attached to the grid, and called up as needed. The "Smart Grid Ready" label was developed to certify houses and properties that enable such smart communication with the grid. Through "open innovation," Switzerland is focusing primarily on the development of digital applications and solutions which make it possible to manage the existing complexity of the renewable energy network and its targeted use in a simplified manner.
2. Potential of digital solutions for environmentally friendly transport
According to various studies, the fields of action of "infrastructure" and "environmental protection, natural resources, and energy" show the greatest GHG savings potential through digitalization. The mobility sector in particular offers a significant opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, road traffic was responsible for 32% of total greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of carbon emissions in Switzerland, making it the largest single offender. Almost two thirds of these emissions were attributed to passenger traffic. Not surprisingly, flexible solutions such as mobile working or video conferencing instead of business trips are therefore considered to have the greatest savings potential. The hypothesis is: It is more energy-saving to "transport bits instead of atoms." For example, Prof. Lorenz Hilty estimates that using video conferencing instead of air travel quickly reduces energy requirements by a factor of 100 (international air travel is responsible for approximately 11% of all Swiss GHG emissions).
In order to realize the full potential for savings in mobility, efforts are being made throughout Switzerland to create an efficient overall transport system. "Smart Mobility" puts modern technologies in the foreground: Sensor technology, AI-based capacity utilization control in public transport, and real-time data evaluation are to be used to control the traffic flow in the best possible way, to save resources, and to use existing infrastructure optimally (e.g., traffic light control by detecting approaching cars). With the help of the capacity information generated, passengers can be offered alternative routes. The use of such technologies could be particularly helpful in the corona crisis. If fewer passengers are on the road during rush hours, the risk of infection is reduced. In addition to appropriate apps for access, investments in real-time data that provide information on the utilization of individual buses and trains are therefore required.
3. Making digital infrastructure and data centers more ecological
In order to manage the high complexity of the use of innovative technologies for the environment, as described above, improved data collection and interdisciplinary cooperation are required above all. One major weakness of current efforts in Switzerland is that they are often carried out at cantonal or local level and the data collections harvested are not interoperable. However, the interoperability of data collections is the key to developing cross-cantonal solutions and nationwide SMART infrastructures, pooling resources, and avoiding redundant capacities. The "once only" principle will be applied, whereby in future data will be collected only once and made accessible to all participants through open data infrastructures.
One further challenge to sustainability in this respect is the necessary scale of data collection and real-time data acquisition, for whose timely and relevant analysis ever larger data centers are required. Data centers are responsible for 20% of the worldwide energy consumption of digitalization. In Switzerland, their share in total emissions from the information and communications technology sector increased from 33% to 45% between 2010 and 2020. Green energy is therefore central to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as manufacturing emissions play a comparatively small role in such centers. In comparison, the emissions generated during the manufacturing process of consumer technologies are much more significant, accounting for 75% of total life cycle emissions. Data centers are a major driver of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. To address the challenge posed by data centers, the Swiss Datacenter Efficiency Association (SDEA) was developed on the initiative of HPE and digitalswitzerland. In future, their task will be to award the "Swiss Data Center Efficiency Label" to particularly energy-efficient data centers in order to create an incentive for innovative and sustainable solutions in this area as well.