Adding urgency to innovation, collaboration and change could well be the key to one planet prosperity and to saving our species, believes Bob Downes

Bob Downes reflects on a fringe event at Cop26, where the climate change question was addressed through the lens of technology and innovation. Although he doesn’t believe in “tech fairy stories” – and there is no doubt apps and widgets alone will not solve the greatest challenge faced by humanity – the chair of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) believes the experience of recent years, especially the Covid healthcare emergency but also Brexit and SEPA’s own recent experience of a cyberattack, provides a powerful and positive stimulus for adaptation and change.

Nowhere is that clearer than for the climate emergency, where the primary goal of keeping the earth’s
warming limit to 1.5°C, as set out in the Paris Agreement, requires some tough, hard-headed decisions. Politicians and business leaders who gathered at the Glasgow event are thus increasingly looking to technology and innovation to help transport, business, energy, agriculture, the residential and waste sectors reduce their share of the earth’s resources.

The energy generation sector is a good example where that is already happening, says Downes, who cites a recent Scottish Government study showing that CO2 emissions, such as from power stations, fell by 71 per cent between 1990 and 2019, the largest of any sector. The change in that context has been driven by the revolution in renewables. But other areas of the economy have been “flatlining”, he warns, particularly transport, agriculture and residential energy use, and those industries also need to embrace change and adaptation.

“Whatever we do, technology and innovation have to play into how you reduce millions of tons of CO2
because it’s critical we make a difference at that level,” says Downes, an experienced business leader and former senior executive with BT. “Every business I’m involved with now is thinking about how to minimise the take of its resources and that helps you to think about innovation in your own organisation.”

It also makes financial sense. The California-based Global Footprint Network suggests that in the UK, we are using three times the resources our planet has. If that was a company, with costs running 300 per cent over revenue, there would need to be a fundamental re-alignment of the business model, says Downes. He cites further examples where adaptation is even creating opportunities.

There is the whisky industry, where by-products are increasingly being used in other sectors; construction where innovative firms are salvaging and reusing materials; telecommunications where remote management systems are eliminating the need for engineers onsite and aquaculture where innovations have led to not only the reduction of harmful chemicals, but entirely new product ranges. The gains are maximised when you don’t just come at the problem with technology as a solution, he says, splitting the challenge into four parts.

For power systems, the big transformational technologies will dictate the pace of change at a macro level. Carbon reductions will continue to be delivered through changes to the way we work, such as those caused by the pandemic, where hybrid and remote working have driven down transport emissions, albeit with the caveat that residential energy use has increased. Thirdly, process innovation in industry – such as through the collaboration between whisky producers and farmers – as well as reuse and recycling of materials for the fashion industry, is coming about because of a change in consumer behaviour and demand. And lastly, digital technologies are enabling industries and governments to act “smarter”, using insights from data to drive better decisions about how we manage our environmental impacts.

On that front, Downes thinks we need to go further and faster, and the lesson from Covid is an instructive
one, particularly for SEPA, whose own systems were impacted by a cyberattack in December 2020. The agency, which had been working remotely anyway, had to overcome some serious operational challenges when it was hit by a ransomware incident on Christmas Eve, and whose recovery is already seeing more, not less, reliance on digital.

“We’ve learnt at SEPA how we can do things collaboratively and the cyberattack has accelerated our investment in agile technologies,” says Downes. “It’s not the technology, it’s the culture and processes in the business that will make the difference in the end. But the answer must be that we need to do it faster and take more risks with it as well.

“You try agile technology and it’s not working so you switch that process now, in real time. That is not
easy but where we are doing a good deal of that is with the cyberattack. Crisis is a great innovator; we’ve
had it and dealt with it and are now moving on through the innovations we’re making in agile technology.
And we have to bring our people along because that’s the nub of it.”

One such innovation has been in digital licensing, where SEPA is helping to drive down the number of interactions between it and license applicants. The agency is also working increasingly with academics and technologists to develop systems to monitor environmental harms.

The Forth Environmental Resilience Array, directed by Stirling University, will use state-of-the-art technology – including sensors, satellites, artificial intelligence and digital fabric, such as 5G – to monitor
the Firth of Forth catchment in real-time. It will collate environmental data, including important information on water quality and quantity, and use the intelligence gathered to drive clean growth and support the region in its transition to net zero. SEPA hopes to harness the platform to support monitoring and predicting bathing water quality in real-time, and to establish early flood warning and monitoring.

As someone who helped set up CENSIS – Scotland’s innovation centre for sensing, imaging and
internet of things – it is an area where Downes, personally, sees a connection between the role of the
regulator and technology. There are other advances, too. The evolution of low earth orbit satellites is changing the way we map the earth and manage the impacts on it, with space intelligence driving
new insights on where environmental areas of concern, from deforestation to peatland restoration.

So how does the regulator and government, work in tandem with business and industry – driven by fast-moving consumer dynamics – to crack climate change, especially when it comes to technology, which is also prone to quickly disrupting itself?

Downes adds: “I don’t think the public sector should determine the outcomes. It should set the standards. Regulation, in my view, properly handled by government, creates the certainty for business to invest and innovate, and we need that applied to transport, business, energy, agriculture, waste and

“If you do that, you’ll get not only big transformative technology to solve power problems, but you’ll
also get innovation in process. Technology with innovation and process will have a direct impact on getting us to net zero a lot quicker, and that starts to crack the problem. If you say, for example, five
years from now all new construction has to be net zero and waste neutral. It spurs innovation in
the construction sector because they’ve got certainty and can only produce offices and homes that will
meet those standards. So, as soon as you do that, the private sector responds.”

Downes points to what is happening in Scotland. “We’ve been doing that with the One Planet Prosperity strategy at SEPA. We’re talking about moving ‘beyond compliance’ and having these kinds of discussions at boardroom level within different sectors. When we go beyond compliance, we need to provide that level of certainty, so you don’t have to become experts, but you need people who are capable of listening
and understanding and applying, and that’s what we are trying to do: it’s about influence, agitation, agreement and then regulation.

“Because the old days of doing point enforcement without reference to innovation and technology against these environmental standards is not enough.”

For Downes, the outlook is encouraging. “There’s real lessons here. Global crises events such as Covid, the climate and nature emergencies have driven a clamour for change – from employees, stakeholders, shareholders and activist investors,” he says. “The challenge now is to accelerate that momentum. That momentum, urgency, innovation, collaboration and change could well be the key to one planet prosperity and to saving our species.”