Brett Roberts, GHD

Brett Roberts of GHD Digital will be participating in a panel discussion on leveraging digital and technology innovation to achieve sustainability goals at our Global Business Summit 2022 (23-24 August, Denver). He shares some insights ahead of the event.

EA: Digital tech is acknowledged as a key component of the sustainability transition. Regarding the interplay between the two trends: what in your experience are the most significant ways in which digital technologies are influencing sustainability plans and net zero journeys for companies? 

BR: For companies and society alike, digital technology has the power to significantly accelerate the journey towards a more sustainable and lower carbon future. And generally, the environmental and sustainability industry falls behind industries like finance and manufacturing in the adoption of digital technologies.

But, at the heart of the sustainability transition is data. Digital technologies and software platforms enable the acceleration of sustainability or net-zero programs through automating data collection, management, tracking and reporting. Dataset integration and application of digital technologies are enhancing decision-making and accelerating progress towards sustainable outcomes.

For example, when operations data is integrated with emissions data, water use data, or waste generation data, we can apply Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to optimize operations to reduce emissions, water use, or waste generation. Different operating scenarios can be assessed using predictive advanced analytics models to forecast future sustainability outcomes and enable more informed and sustainable decision-making.

EA: And the converse: in what ways are sustainability and climate imperatives catalysing the adoption, innovation, or development of digital tech where it might not otherwise have happened?

BR: Most companies have set net-zero or carbon reduction goals. Now, they are required to put strategies in place to reach those goals and track their progress. These decarbonization strategies are likely to involve one or a combination of four different approaches: (i) optimizing or modifying operations to become more efficient and reduce emissions; (ii) CapEx projects to reduce emissions; (iii) selling, disposing, or decommissioning high carbon footprint assets; and (iv) acquiring carbon offsets. Each of these strategies, along with the initial environmental baseline setting, progress tracking and reporting are catalysing digital innovation and adoption of digital tech.

Together with our clients and partners, we have both developed and continue to develop digital technologies to enable improved evaluation or implementation of these four strategies. For example, our advanced analytics models enable our oil and gas clients to optimize upstream operations, reducing flaring and emissions. We have automated greenhouse gas (GHG) so that operations and emissions data can be used to automatically calculate and generate GHG reports. We developed a digital tool called ZEVO, which uses a combination of fleet and service assessments to evaluate fleet decarbonization scenarios. And, GHD’s ‘Gaia’ solution tracks and analyzes our clients environmental and carbon footprint for their remediation portfolios.

EA: In which contexts or industry sectors can digital technologies make the biggest impact on attaining sustainability goals, and what are the drivers behind this?

BR: The industries with the largest environmental footprint, like the Oil and Gas industry, have the most to gain in the short-term from adopting digital technology. All industries can benefit from digital technologies to accelerate attainment of sustainability goals, absolutely. But, for Oil and Gas specifically, the need to reduce their carbon footprint quickly is driving companies to adopt innovative technologies at an accelerated pace. For example, the industry could benefit from digital technologies to advance remote detection and monitoring of methane emissions from aircraft and satellites

The key driver behind the adoption of digital technology is simple: the need to move quickly, with greater efficiency, and regularly tracked progress. The outdated approach of measuring and reporting on GHG emissions annually through "manual" or "spreadsheet" methods, for example, is no longer sufficient to assess progress and adjust strategies to meet decarbonization goals.

EA: Conversely, where do you see the greatest challenges to deploying digital technologies in service of sustainability and climate goals?

BR: There are three key inter-related challenges to deploying digital technologies:

(i). Data availability: Often companies do not have relevant data available or centralized to support easy and efficient implementation of technologies that bring the greatest value, like AI and ML. For example, when looking to reduce emissions and optimize operations, all available data needed to make informed decisions might be in disparate spreadsheets or software systems. Often, there is none to little consistency in data across different facilities and assets.

(ii). Funding availability: Existing budgets tend not to account for the implementation of these technologies to collect, centralize, or cleanse the data, which can then be leveraged into higher-value solutions. An upfront investment for implementation is typically required for all digital solutions. And, it provides a strong ROI in the short- to mid-term for gained efficiencies. Although companies understand the business case and ROI, their annual budget cycles may not allow for the necessary investment to centralize data for example.

(iii). Data transparency and sharing: With companies trying to solve their sustainability challenges within financial constraints, as mentioned above, it’s already difficult to deploy digital technologies. Instead, imagine if companies or municipalities were willing to be more transparent with their data and share their insights on how they were able to optimize their operations to reduce environmental impacts. If we could improve how we share lessons learned through data transparency, we would significantly reduce costs and accelerate the progress toward sustainability goals of whole industries and countries, not just individual companies or municipalities.

EA: What impact on the costs (or cost savings) of a sustainability programme does a digital transformation have, and how much does this influence a company’s sustainability and digital strategies, in your experience?

BR: Typically, there are strong efficiency gains and cost savings by kickstarting a digital transformation journey and investing in and implementing innovative solutions. The real value of digital technologies, is not just in the efficiency savings, but in the empowered sustainable outcomes and secondary benefits.

For example, implementing an ESG software platform will result in tracking and reporting efficiencies, while also creating new and improved business practices and behaviours across the organization. This means additional savings and improved outcomes for the company.

Take GHD Navigator, for example. Our integrated software solution manages, automates, and streamlines key aspects of waste tracking activities and can  be used to track progress towards waste reduction goals. Ultimately, this platform can drive more sustainable practices toward reusing or recycling resources and reducing waste disposal, resulting in cost savings across your organization. If we implement similar digital solutions, the impact on cost savings is exponential. Instead of seeing a cost return directly related to the digital solution in one area of your sustainability journey, you can see numerous secondary savings that set the foundation for even more down the road.

EA: What digital technology, in your view, is likely to have the most disruptive impact on the sustainability and ESG sectors in coming years, and what are the reasons for your answer?

BR: It’s a beautiful thing, digital technology. There are infinite opportunities to apply new technologies across environmental and sustainability industries. However, if I were to pick one, the application of AI and ML to large and inter-related data sets has the potential to be a massive, positive disruptor over the next few years. If implemented, AI & ML will:

  • Enable optimization of operations to reduce environmental impact;
  • Provide predictive analysis of different scenarios to improve sustainable decision making;
  • Offer early warning of non-compliance or harmful environmental impacts;
  • Improve planning and decision-making for future sustainable investments.

Honestly, the list of benefits goes on. And at the heart of these and other use cases, we can see the interconnected relationships of large and sometimes non-traditional datasets. AI and ML can also be used to generate these data sets through document mining and web-scraping.

GHD is using a predictive analytics model and applying AI and ML across many aspects of the environmental industry, including the environmental remediation space. We’re helping clients optimize their remediation portfolios to reduce their long-term liabilities and close sites faster for less cost. By using AI and ML to mine data from publicly available documents on a regulatory agency website, we have provided a client with a database containing data from over 15,000 sites, including typical and non-traditional data. The predictive analytics model enables us to use this data to forecast the likelihood of third-party legal claims, group and identify higher-risk sites, identify the fastest and least cost strategy for each site to achieve closure, and help the client prioritize their spending across their portfolio to reduce their long-term liabilities with the least spend.

The other two technologies that deserve an honourable mention are Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and blockchain. Although AI and ML are now being applied across our industry, albeit still in a limited sense, RPA and blockchain are barely being applied at all. RPA has significant opportunities to bring efficiencies by automating many of the manual repetitive labour-intensive tasks performed. While blockchain presents an opportunity to improve traceability and transparency of data, decisions, and reporting. For example, imagine all GHG reporting being via blockchain enabling emissions to be traced back to individual assets and then companies being able to benchmark themselves against others to identify areas for improvement. 

Continue the conversation at Environment Analyst’s Global Business Summit (23-24 August, Denver), where Brett will be joining a panel discussion exploring the role of digital and technology innovation in sustainable transformation.