How can your quantum vision be transformed into a sustainable reality?

Authors
Sophia Hunter

Director, Technology Risk, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate about developing our future leaders. Enjoys spending time outdoors running after her little one.

Mira Pijselman

Senior Consultant, Technology Risk, Ernst & Young LLP

Digital ethicist, researcher, consultant. Bridges the gaps posed by emerging technology risk through responsible innovation. Dedicated to empowering the next generation of socio-technical talent.

Piers Clinton-Tarestad

Partner, Technology Risk, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate about building interconnected approaches to technology risks. Father of two.

Harvey Lewis

Partner, Client Technology & Innovation, Ernst & Young LLP

Chief Data Scientist for Tax, designing and developing AI systems for tax and law professionals. Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the Bayes Business School, City, University of London.

Matthew Bell

EY Global Climate Change and Sustainability Services Leader

Climate change and sustainability leader. Engaging in purposeful change and creating long-term value for global organizations. Savvy in science and technology.

15 minute read 8 Jul 2022

Before a quantum transition, what sustainability risks and opportunities should organisations recognise, and prepare for?

In brief

  • Quantum will create new opportunities for environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG), such as optimising resource consumption.
  • Quantum technologies will also introduce new sustainability risks, which may magnify — rather than alleviate — existing ESG challenges. 
  • Although commercially viable quantum technologies may be several years away, companies can take practical steps now to ensure sustainability-by-design.   

Businesses constantly manage evolving consumer expectations, regulations, partnerships, industry and competitor boundaries, and business models. Amidst all this change,  we have seen sustainability climb the priority list and for good reason: sustainable business practices minimise environmental impact, enhance brand value and enable new opportunities for value creation.1 It is because of this observation that we turn our focus to the relationship between quantum and sustainability for this latest chapter in the EY Quantum Intersection series.

Under the sustainability umbrella, value is measured through environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) metrics, such as tracking carbon emissions, energy efficiency and product safety. Sustainability presents organisations with an array of complex problems to solve. As this complexity increases, solutions become ever more dependent on data and technology. More accurate measurement tools are already helping to assure progress against environmental targets. Algorithms are helping to accelerate decision-making, and the design of sustainability-oriented products and services. For example, through their Green Horizons initiative, IBM is already leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and data generated via internet-of-things (IoT) devices to forecast pollution levels, and plan cities to have a reduced carbon impact.2 And, as suggested by EY, AI is already a game-changer for renewable energy, improving demand forecasting and asset management, and also helping to drive operational excellence in many crucial areas of this fast-growing industry.

However, technology itself is also an increasing part of the problem. The technology sector already accounts for between two and four percent of global emissions — as of September 2021 — and without intervention, this is predicted to grow significantly by 2040.3

Sustainability infographic

Thus, despite the perceived intangible nature of modern digital technology, computation is nonetheless a physical process. It takes energy to create, store, manipulate and transmit information. Nowhere is this more apparent than Bitcoin — a cryptocurrency that consumes more energy (much of it, fossil-fuel based) than many small nations.4

These two conflicting trends — technology augmenting and challenging the ability to deliver on ESG goals — will significantly impact sustainability strategies. We have always appreciated the duality of technology. However, what is different now is technology’s rate of change, and the way that it magnifies both the risks and opportunities for sustainability. This is particularly true for quantum technologies, which include quantum computing, sensing and communication. To protect your business and broader society from the sustainability risks posed by quantum — whilst simultaneously unlocking opportunities — business and technology leaders must understand why quantum technologies stand to create such a momentous, cross-sector impact. Further, they must recognise the problems most likely to be applicable to quantum technologies and those that may not. In short, businesses should establish the right mindset today to prepare for the possibility of disruption tomorrow.

Why should businesses be excited about quantum today?

Quantum technologies, such as quantum computing, represent and manipulate information in a fundamentally different way. They use concepts, such as ‘reversible computation’ and subatomic particles — called ‘qubits’ — to perform calculations. You can read more background on the technology, including current signals, in ‘Three steps business leaders can take to get ‘quantum ready’

Quantum technologies could have positive impacts on sustainability in two ways. First, for certain use cases, such as AI, they could massively increase the speed of computation, thereby reducing overall cost and environmental impact.5 For example, in a report on the use of quantum computing to fight climate change, the Q4Climate collective showed that running a well-publicised calculation on Google’s Sycamore quantum computer required 557,000-times less energy than if the same calculation had been performed on a classical supercomputer.6 Even more modest estimates of a 20-times improvement would still be significant.7

A quantum computer required 557,000-times less energy than a classical supercomputer for the same calculation.

Second, there is hope that quantum technologies will allow us to solve previously intractable problems that could significantly benefit climate science. For example, a quantum computer has the potential to support the development of more efficient ways of producing ammonia for fertilisers — a process that currently accounts for one to two percent of global carbon emissions.8

In this article, we consider the sustainability impact that quantum technologies may have on the contemporary business landscape and our planet. In doing so, we reflect on the opportunities and threats pertaining to sustainability, which business and technology leaders should be considering, as well as the immediate, practical steps that can be taken today to move towards a sustainable, technology-rich future.

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Chapter

Opportunities for improving sustainability

Simulate, optimise and sense: quantum computers can be harnessed for good.

One of the most interesting — and timely — areas of research for quantum technologies is combating climate change. The renowned quantum physicist, Richard Feynman, said, “nature isn't classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you'd better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly it's a wonderful problem, because it doesn't look so easy.”9 There is already substantial activity at the intersection of quantum and sustainability. Three high-level examples of where quantum technologies may offer a step up in capability for reducing carbon emissions are: simulation, optimisation and modelling, and quantum sensing.10

Let us consider each of these in turn.

Simulation

Quantum-enabled simulation is widely applicable across sectors, with use cases ranging from the discovery of more environmentally-friendly battery materials and chemical compounds that can facilitate carbon capture, to supporting the design of more energy-efficient vehicles.

For example, the complexity of simulating even simple molecules and their interactions using classical computers has created barriers for materials science in the past because the computations would take too long to be practically useful. Historically, this has delayed innovation in areas that are key to societal advancement, such as drug discovery and manufacturing. 

Recognising the promise of quantum computing in overcoming previous computational limits, IBM and Daimler are collaborating to develop “next-generation lithium sulphur (Li-S) batteries that would be more powerful, longer lasting and cheaper than today’s widely used lithium-ion batteries”.11 Such efforts have the potential to create a positive impact on consumers, manufacturers and most importantly, the planet. 

Optimisation and modelling 

Sustainability can also be a byproduct of organisational optimisation. In our research, we have identified opportunities for quantum-enabled optimisation in areas such as waste collection, traffic management, flight path management, logistics, supply chain, stowage, and energy consumption. 

For instance, Fujitsu and Toyota have experimented with a quantum digital-annealer solution on their manufacturing supply chain, which they reported could “reduce logistics costs by two to five percent.”12 Furthermore, Cambridge Quantum Computing — now Quantinuum — and Deutsche Bahn have partnered to use quantum computing to make the German rail network greener and more efficient.13

These types of problems are known as combinatorial optimisation problems, which can be thought of as efforts to locate an ideal solution in high-dimensional data.14 Combinatorial optimisation problems scale rapidly in complexity, as the number of variables increases. Like the impracticalities of running complex molecular simulations on classical computers, combinatorial optimisation problems can also quickly become too burdensome for classical computing infrastructure, which makes quantum computing an obvious opportunity for innovation. Quantum optimisation allows businesses to reduce costs, maximise efficiency and reduce environmental impact, if not augment overall sustainability.

Quantum sensing

A third area of opportunity for quantum and sustainability is quantum sensing, which, according to the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT), leverages the quantum mechanical properties of subatomic particles to augment “precision when estimating a parameter of a system.”15 In simpler words, quantum sensing can help us to understand better the world around us by giving more detailed, precise information about an object or phenomenon of interest. 

In contrast to their classical equivalents, quantum sensors promise to be much more sensitive because of the fragility of quantum states, which are highly susceptible to changes in their environments. By virtue of that sensitivity, quantum sensors have the potential to be more useful in helping decision-making in use cases across sectors — from life sciences to manufacturing.

The work of the HYDRI consortium — led by BP — is a good example of how quantum sensing can be harnessed for sustainability. The consortium aims to create quantum sensors to detect hydrogen gas leaks.16 This work is a part of broader efforts to promote the use of hydrogen gas as a greener energy alternative. Away from detecting potential environmental hazards, quantum sensing can also be used to monitor carbon emissions more reliably, as well as improve the performance and longevity of certain renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines, by enabling real-time turbine adjustments according to weather conditions.17

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Chapter

The risks that quantum brings to a sustainable future

Recognising the duality of quantum technologies for sustainability.

Whilst reviewing key sustainability use cases across simulation, optimisation and sensing, there is reason to believe that quantum technologies may help to enable greater planetary health for future generations. However, history tells us that, with disruptive technologies, such as AI, where there are incredible opportunities, businesses must also reflect on potential risks. This is especially true, given the increasing strength of the link between sustainability and brand. For quantum, we can already predict risks that this emerging suite of technologies may pose to a sustainable future, including accelerating resource consumption and powering unsustainable use cases. Considering these more problematic aspects of the technologies early will help businesses design for success.

The demands of quantum

Whilst early experimentation with quantum has demonstrated the potential for more energy-efficient computing in certain areas, there is growing concern that exponential technology advances could drive corresponding exponential increases in energy use and natural resource consumption. Examples include the consumption of more natural resources for the manufacture of novel materials and the potential environmental impacts of quantum hardware supply chains, as well as the energy demands of data storage. Modern deep-learning approaches continue to drive the narrative that ‘bigger is better’ when it comes to data.18 

Quantum technologies are primed to handle larger and more complex data sets. Thus, whilst quantum computers may be able to process data in a more energy-efficient manner, we could aggravate existing energy demands by encouraging the accumulation of more data with ever higher levels of dimensionality. 

There is growing concern that exponential technology could drive exponential resource consumption.

Similarly, when it comes to quantum and security, there is a huge range of energy footprints for post-quantum cryptography, with some candidate solutions having the potential to consume over a thousand times more energy than others for certain operations.19 Therefore, a consideration of carbon impact must be an essential part of evaluating future quantum-cryptographic schemes to secure data. It is for this reason that organisations — including regulators — must consider what the sustainability risks and opportunities might be if these technologies are adopted at scale. Designing sustainability considerations into the selection and implementation of quantum technologies will be an integral part of their success.

Quantum for bad?

We often hear the phrase ‘AI for good.’ More recently, ‘quantum for good’ has emerged in narratives from industry, academia and politics to refer to the way that these new technologies can be harnessed towards socially and environmentally desirable ends. Whilst such terms speak to the potentially positive impact of the technologies on society, they can also obscure instances where the technologies may degrade — as opposed to heighten — sustainability. 

For example, one can imagine some businesses exploiting the power of quantum computers to develop materials that are cheaper to manufacture or use, but less environmentally friendly. Similarly, actors using quantum optimisation systems could optimise solely for economic gain at the expense of environmental or social needs.

Businesses will be faced with hard choices as the trade-off between sustainability and ethics is a reality with disruptive technologies, such as quantum.

As we explore in 'Why Innovation Leaders Must Consider Quantum Ethics,' there may be use cases ill-suited to quantum technologies because their algorithms cannot be audited in the same way as traditional programmes. The same is true for sustainability. There may be certain use cases that have an inherently negative impact, as explored above. More complex still, situations may arise in which quantum provides a sustainability benefit, such as reduced energy consumption, but only at the expense of a corresponding ethical risk, such as a lack of algorithmic explanation or transparency, which may be needed to comply with regulations designed to protect end users. Such a trade-off between sustainability and ethics is one that businesses will need to make, as the adoption of quantum technologies increases. 

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that quantum technologies will always be used in alignment with ESG goals. Instead, the opposite may be true, unless businesses invest the time and resources into developing standards and oversight activities that promote positive sustainability impacts. Furthermore, ESG experts and those engaged in the ethics of emerging technologies must work with business and technology leaders to find the optimal path forwards — especially if what is best for sustainability is in opposition with what is best from a broader ethical point of view.

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Chapter

Preparing for a sustainable quantum future

Practical steps to take now to get ready for the quantum revolution.

We have reviewed some of the primary opportunities and risks for sustainability that are likely to be posed by quantum technologies in the future. So, what steps can business and technology leaders take now to ensure that sustainability is a part of their  quantum transition? Below, we outline three constructive steps to add sustainability into a quantum road map. When implemented together, they will enable sustainability-by-design — where sustainability is considered holistically and continuously throughout a programme, project or product life cycle. 

Take immediate action to secure long-term value

Whilst the large-scale commercialisation of quantum technologies is three to five years away, businesses must act today to prepare for a quantum transition, or else risk losing their competitive advantage tomorrow. Let us imagine, for example, that company ABC develops a novel car battery material that charges in under five minutes and at a fraction of the cost compared with their competitor’s. As a consumer, if you had the choice between a vehicle powered by ABC’s battery and a similarly priced vehicle that might take 20 times longer to charge, which would you choose? Most likely, you would opt for a car manufactured by ABC. Of course, being able to develop a greener, higher-performing battery material would only have been possible if ABC had invested early in quantum and had considered how these technologies would augment and harm their existing ESG priorities, as well as overall trust in their technology.

But where can you start? One area to consider first is your data potential. This can begin by taking stock of data quality and availability to understand how best to structure, filter and capture the right data for quantum-appropriate use cases. You can also ask questions about how data can be stored and processed more efficiently to accelerate the decarbonisation of your business. Finally, in connecting sustainability to broader governance practices and trust, you can audit existing systems to ensure that they are being developed and maintained with sustainability in mind. The more effective these investigations are now, the more you will be able to realise quantum advantage — when the time comes.

We urge organisations, including regulators, to consider the sustainability risks of quantum technologies before their widespread adoption. If we wait for these technologies to mature and become widely available in the market, it may be too late to offset or mitigate the associated harms. Understanding the environmental impacts of quantum technologies, and how they compare to existing alternatives, will be essential for businesses to ensure that quantum augments their ability to lead on sustainability, as much as possible. By considering sustainability at the point of design, businesses have an opportunity to enable a quantum ecosystem that supports our planet, instead of working against it.

Create teams of the future

For sustainability to permeate a business, you need an umbrella governance approach to determine whether the technologies you are using have the desired impact. To ensure quantum readiness, you can start by assessing the extended footprint of your broader technology infrastructure. This includes embedding and revisiting procurement and contracting processes to drive change, as well evaluating the impact of the platforms and road maps targeted for experimentation. 

As the quantum ecosystem matures and scales, businesses are likely to require new approaches for key parts of their technology strategies, such as cloud assurance and management. To facilitate the development of future-proofed quantum road maps, it is essential to cultivate and invest in balanced teams that include individuals with specific expertise in ESG, to capture a necessary view on sustainability in technology decision-making. Business leaders must break down organisational silos and ensure a co-ordinated approach across business-risk, data-risk, and ESG risk teams to govern effectively through a period of disruption.

Engage with the ecosystem

When considering the intersection of quantum and sustainability, it is essential to remember the importance of teamwork. Business and technology leaders must establish collaborative relationships with partners, technology companies and research organisations to support their vision for quantum technologies. In the same way no single organisation can tackle sustainability alone, no single organisation can tackle quantum alone. It is paramount that businesses resist isolating themselves from key partners in achieving sustainability goals. Instead, successful organisations will engage in cross-sector dialogue with individuals from the climate science community, the Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) sector, legislators and broader businesses.

To kick-start collaboration, consider how much you know about quantum, and the specific impact that it might have on your industry and, more specifically, on your associated sustainability goals and obligations. Study the existing frameworks that you have in place to identify, assess and manage disruptive technology risks across your business, including ESG goals. A strong foundation for risk assessment can help you make informed decisions about quantum technologies, as well as design, implement and operate appropriate controls.

  • Show references#Hide article references

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Summary

Realising the benefits of quantum requires businesses to plan for the long game. Business and technology leaders must consider the environmental impact of quantum technology against the business benefits it promises to deliver. They need to understand the potential reputational damage that may arise if their desired goals have an adverse impact on wider society. Businesses are increasingly expected to look past themselves and towards their place in a wider ecosystem. Indeed, the longevity of a business hinges on sustainability being embedded throughout the organisation. What better way to future-proof your business than adopt a sustainability-by-design mindset? 

About this article

Authors
Sophia Hunter

Director, Technology Risk, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate about developing our future leaders. Enjoys spending time outdoors running after her little one.

Mira Pijselman

Senior Consultant, Technology Risk, Ernst & Young LLP

Digital ethicist, researcher, consultant. Bridges the gaps posed by emerging technology risk through responsible innovation. Dedicated to empowering the next generation of socio-technical talent.

Piers Clinton-Tarestad

Partner, Technology Risk, Ernst & Young LLP

Passionate about building interconnected approaches to technology risks. Father of two.

Harvey Lewis

Partner, Client Technology & Innovation, Ernst & Young LLP

Chief Data Scientist for Tax, designing and developing AI systems for tax and law professionals. Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the Bayes Business School, City, University of London.

Matthew Bell

EY Global Climate Change and Sustainability Services Leader

Climate change and sustainability leader. Engaging in purposeful change and creating long-term value for global organizations. Savvy in science and technology.