April 22, 2022
Earth Day: Why Data Is Essential for Protecting the Planet
8 Min Read
Since the beginning of time, data has been the foundation of innovation. Early inventors paired observations of the natural world (data) with creative thinking to solve problems. Consider the Wright brothers who achieved humanity’s dream of flight by observing and mimicking birds in flight – the shape of their bodies and wings. Other astonishing inventions that come directly from observing the natural world (or biomimicry) include:
- Life-saving surgical glue from slugs
- Wind turbines from humpback whales
- Drones from dragonflies
- Advanced robotic arms from elephant trunks
- Self-cooling buildings from termite mounds
Breakthroughs in medicine, science, and industry have always come from this combination of three elements: a problem to be solved + data + novel thinking. Today, in honor of the 52nd Earth Day, we’ll explore how this combination can help protect our planet and why companies need to take the lead to move the needle forward.
Download the infographic to learn more about Earth Day through the decades and important actions it has helped to inspire.
How creative problem-solving works
Problems may sometimes beget invention, but not without the other two elements (data + creative thinking). For example, in the 17th century, animals such as horses were commonly used for power and transport. One application of this was to pump water out of tin mines that often flooded. The problem was that it was expensive and slow to use horses. When considering alternatives, the inventors of the steam engine observed that steam and the condensation of it could form a vacuum. This led to a better solution for pumping water out of the mines and, eventually, to the steam engine train, which is widely considered to have launched the Industrial Revolution. What’s interesting to note is that data and creative thinking were part of each step in the basic problem-solving process:
- Define the problem to be solved: The tin mines often flooded, and the traditional solution (horses) were expensive and slow.
- Observe, analyze, and generate alternatives: Heating water causes steam and the condensation of it can form a vacuum.
- Choose a solution: What if we create a machine that can leverage the vacuum to pull water out of the mines?
- Evaluate the solution and continuously improve: Later inventors improved on the original design, which led to better solutions and alternative uses.
Applying creative problem-solving (and earth data) to protect our planet
Steam power and the subsequent mechanization of manual labor led to incredible societal advances including improved mobility, increased productivity, the expansion of trade, and more. But it also led to problems such as pollution, poor working conditions, and climate change, one of the biggest challenges we face today. The good news is that we have all three elements (a problem, data, novel thinking) necessary to solve the problem:
1. Define the problem
Scientists have known since the early 1900s that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are rapidly increasing heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. This is accelerating global warming and climate change, leading to other catastrophic effects such as drought, extreme weather, natural disasters, food insecurity, the spread of disease, and more. There is ample data and scientific consensus supporting the definition of this problem, the most recent being the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report.
2. Observe, analyze, and generate alternatives
Today we have a much better understanding of the relationship between human activity and climate change than we did nearly a century ago. Digital technologies have fundamentally transformed how we collect, interpret, and apply information to solve problems. Connected data streams come in every minute from satellites, smartphones, drones, energy grids, and other devices, with information we could only dream of before. And advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, are helping us make sense of this data. The digitization of the natural world also provides an unprecedented opportunity to pair these observations with creative thinking to innovate. Here are a few examples:
- NASA Earth Data
- Climate on Data.gov
- European Space Agency Earth Online, Climate Data Dashboard, and Earth in a Box
- UN Spider earth data sources and GIS/Remote sensing software
- Group on Earth Observations
- Global Forest Watch and Global Fishing Watch
- Google Earth Engine and Climate Innovation Challenge
- Microsoft AI for Earth and grants
- Earth on AWS and Bezos Earth Fund
At a macro level, ESG data providers publish environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance ratings, scores, and research on thousands of companies to help investors and businesses identify and manage risk. Examples include ratings published for investors by MSCI, Sustainalytics, Bloomberg, ISS, S&P, and more, as well as those published by reporting framework providers such as CDP. Nonprofits and NGOs also publish ESG ratings such as the Forest500 or Deforestation Free Funds. Public ESG reports from individual companies feed into these benchmarks, providing the basis for comparison. Investors use ESG data to assess portfolio risk and make more informed investment decisions. Businesses use ESG data to manage operational and supply chain risks, meet stakeholder requirements, and gain competitive advantage.
- Smart infrastructure for lower energy usage and improved efficiencies
- Advanced forecasting and energy storage to optimize renewable energy deployment
- Drone monitoring or remote sensing to verify carbon offset projects
- Carbon removal technologies (e.g., Climeworks, Charm Industrial, Carbon Cure)
- Biotechnology to transform carbon into useful oils and proteins
- Methane leak detection
- Electric vehicles
- (For businesses) Calculate, reduce, and offset your emissions.
- (For businesses) Simplify the process of identifying, tracking, and reducing ESG risk associated with your suppliers.
- (For investors) Understand, analyze, and report on the ESG performance of your investment portfolio.
3. Choose a solution
Every nation and business will decide what solutions to put in place, but there is no time to waste. In the words of Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program:
“Half-measures won’t halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which is what we need to do. We need to go all in. The IPCC tells us that we have the knowledge and technology to get it done. But increased action must begin this year, not next year. This month, not next month. Today, not tomorrow.”
Many countries have made net-zero pledges and are implementing various solutions to achieve them, such as increasing adoption of renewable energy and investment into electric vehicles. However, current commitments by governments fall short of what is needed, giving businesses a unique opportunity to take a leadership role in solving the problem. According to a study of more than 11,000 people by the World Economic Forum, Qualtrics, and SAP, 81% said businesses are primarily responsible for taking action on climate change. And companies that that lead the way in sustainability and commit to going carbon neutral experience benefits such as:
- Better financial performance
- Improved competitive advantage
- Stronger organizational trust
- Healthier stakeholder relationships
- More engaged employees
- Accelerated innovation
- Increased resilience to climate risks and regulatory changes
4. Evaluate the solution and continuously improve
The PowerCone is a great example of an improvement to a climate change solution that leverages observations of the natural world paired with creative thinking. One of the problems with wind turbines is the pressure difference that develops between the blades (high pressure) and hub (low pressure). This creates unnecessary turbulence and pulls power away from the blades. The PowerCone channels more of the incoming wind to the blades, increasing efficiency and energy production by 10-13%.
We have the data and innovation needed to save the earth – do we have the will?
In 1987, the world came together to solve a problem of ozone depletion – and it worked. Widely recognized as the world’s most successful multilateral environmental agreement, the Montreal Protocol saw all countries committed to committed to phase out ozone-depleting substances and invest in alternative technologies.
If we’ve done it once, we can do it again. We have a problem to be solved (climate change), the data (knowledge) and novel thinking (technology/innovation) to make it happen. The question is, will we?
“We have the capacity to radically scale up climate action through the exponential growth in disruptive technologies – if we agree to do what it takes, and put the right policies and finance in place fast to deliver a healthier, cleaner zero-carbon world in time.”
Nigel Topping, UN High Level Climate Champion for COP26
Watch the video to see what some of the OneTrust team have to say about sustainability and why it’s important for companies to take the lead:
Download the Earth Day infographic to see how it has evolved over the first five decades and important actions and innovations it has helped to inspire.
You may also be interested in downloading the whitepaper to learn more about setting corporate climate goals: The Guide for Setting Corporate Climate Goals