As ‘net zero’ emissions targets seek to slow climate change rather than stop it, internet of things (IoT) solutions offer a way for business to monitor their own energy levels with pinpoint accuracy, writes Kieran Murphy, an IoT entrepreneur who's helping property businesses to meet their new emissions goal.

When I was asked recently to share my thoughts on Ireland's climate change legislation, I realised that I'd need to start with a bold statement: global warming is real, and it's happening right now.

If you take your bad news in real-time, news footage of bush fires engulfing Australia and the western US will have made that point much more forcibly than I can here.

If you prefer it in statistical form, let me direct you to the latest output from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which shows that September was the hottest in the organisations' 141-year dataset and the 429th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average.

Kieran Murphy, IoT entrepreneur

The seven warmest Septembers on record have all occurred in the past seven years. Taken as a whole, 2020 will figure as one of the two warmest years ever, and it may even knock 2016, the present el Niño-powered record holder, off the top slot. 

Against such a backdrop, the government's October announcement of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020 stands out as a beacon of sanity. The legislation sets the country a national climate objective defined as "pursu[ing] the transition to a climate-resilient and climate neutral economy by the end of the year 2050".

While the good intentions of the legislation are not in dispute, the devil is in the detail, and the particular demon confronting the architects of any decarbonisation policy remains that of finding suitable metrics to describe progress towards its goals. (The government has very sensibly allowed the Republic some wiggle room in this regard.)

Learning from business

To shed some extra light on our nation's likely direction over the next couple of decades, I'm going to consider the experience of businesses who've already committed to carbon reduction, with particular reference to my home turf in the property sector. I'll also look at a way I believe that our sector can turn ready compliance with the bill to advantage. 

I'll begin with a bracing insight that's applicable right across the economy: 'net zero' is a means of mitigating climate change, not correcting it. 

Those businesses which have voluntarily committed to decarbonisation over the past decade or two have done so to limit warming. The most commonly accepted of those shared targets aims at keeping global temperatures within a range of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. 

Now, a 1.5-degree rise is no picnic. It correlates with a 40cm rise in global sea levels, a 9% reduction in available potable water, an extra month of heatwaves each summer, and an 8%  contraction in the global economy. We won't even discuss the consequences of a two-degree rise, but there are nevertheless enterprises which proudly publicise mitigation efforts aimed at this target!

Sectoral decarbonisation 

The bill sets Ireland on the road to achieving its particular mitigating 'net zero' via a system of successive 'carbon budgets' commencing in 2021. Each five-year carbon budget will allocate emissions ceilings known as ‘decarbonisation target ranges’ to all relevant sectors of the economy. 

Alert business leaders will have noted that those sectoral decarbonisation targets are going to be a very hot potato indeed. Imagine setting a five-year carbon budget for, say, the Irish transport sector... especially in the aftermath of COVID-19! 

Those charged with this onerous task should look to the experience of business, much of which has been involved in carbon mitigation for years. In particular, they should consider the work of Greenhouse Gas Protocol, whose corporate accounting and reporting standard provides the accounting platform on which the majority of corporate businesses rely for their GHG reporting. 

This isn't the place to discuss the GHG standards in any depth, but we can usefully mention its integral concept of 'Scopes', influential to the point that it is now impossible to imagine a mitigation system that doesn't build on it.

Scopes are, in essence, a mechanism for assigning responsibility. Appropriately enough, they start easy and get harder. 

Scope 1 covers direct emissions made by an organisation itself – the fuel you burn to heat your premises, and the fumes emitted by your delivery lorries.  

Scope 2 covers indirect emissions by a particular kind of provider – the companies from whom you purchase electricity, steam, or cooling.  

Scope 3 covers 'other' indirect emissions arising from employees' commuting; manufacture and delivery of capital goods; purchased goods and services; leased assets... 

The Scope 3 challenge 

Now, the general experience of companies involved in carbon mitigation has been that Scope 1 accounting is a piece of cake, Scope 2 is a little more challenging (you must rely on reporting by the utility company) and Scope 3 is fiendishly difficult. But this last classification may also turn out to be the most important. In some sectors, as many as 85% of emissions can be classed as 'Scope 3'.

GHG Protocol's published guidance calls for "sectors to develop guidance through an inclusive multi-stakeholder process to ensure broad acceptance and facilitate increased consistency and credibility... [to] drive more consistent corporate GHG measurement, reporting, and performance tracking practices". 

This advice aligns closely with the provisions of the bill. Those of us working in property might add the pithier observation that one company's Scope 3 is another's Scope 1.

Indeed, the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) framework within which many of us conduct our activities introduced mandatory Scope 3 reporting in 2018, covering emissions "from tenant-controlled areas, from electricity purchased by tenants, and from indirectly managed assets".  

These considerations add yet more force to the already powerful business case for REITs, management companies, and other players in the property game to invest in smart monitoring. 

Getting smart

For those as yet undecided: it's easy to install low-cost smart meters that use the Internet of Things (IoT) technology to upload half-hourly updates to the cloud, requiring neither power supplies nor local networking resources.

These devices may be fitted by the utility companies, but there's a growing market in non-invasive reader hardware provided by third parties to convert the output of old-fashioned analog water or gas meters into live digital readouts. 

The increasing variety of IoT solutions makes it easy to extend beyond utilities to more exotic forms of metering -- air quality, say, or radiation levels, proximity detection, wi-fi traffic analysis.

Since IoT is an open standard and most buildings management solutions are interoperable, it has become trivial to integrate such monitors with building systems to provide an extra degree of heat to favourite shared spaces, to reduce the ambient light in a little-used corridor, or to up the maintenance frequency on a ventilator that's undergoing heavy use. 

My own company recently used IoT technology to engineer a simple classroom sensor that prompts teachers to open windows when exhalate levels start to climb. It was a very minor technical challenge, but has proven a roaring success with teachers concerned about COVID-19 exposure.

Stories like this confirm the experience of companies involved in the new field of property technology, which has been that improved utility metering should be considered as a 'gateway drug'. Once a property business has retrofitted its first 1950s-era water meter with a smart reader, it's on the long path to full-spectrum smart buildings. 

And, if it takes years to get there, what of it? The gradual change aligns with the slow and steady approach of the Climate Action Bill, which – we should remember – proposes reducing GHG emissions by 7% in each of the next 10 years.

As a national test pilot for accurate Scope 3 reporting, the property sector could make a massive contribution to our long, slow farewell to carbon - and do its public standing no harm in the process.

Author: Kieran Murphy is co-founder of IoT and data service company ZiggyTec.