April 22 is Earth Day. What better day to talk about saving the planet?
With the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans rising, the race is on to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
Data plays a vital role as we seek to understand the full effects of climate change, measure progress, and hopefully win the race through a combination of reduced emissions and increased drawdown (meaning removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere).
For example, data is invaluable in helping prioritize actions to deliver the biggest impact per dollar spent, said Stephen Pace, Senior Sales Engineer at Snowflake.
Take the case of a large U.S.-based waste disposal and recycling company that has grown via acquisitions, leading to the usual challenge of disparate IT systems. IoT-based data capture systems monitor capped landfills for methane leaks, but these systems sample data at different frequencies, which makes normalizing the data difficult. (Non-engineers can quickly confirm this is not a simple task by reading this article.) Methane, another greenhouse gas, is considered more potent than carbon dioxide and a major contributor to global warming.
For problems like monitoring landfills for methane leaks, Snowflake Senior Solution Architect Chris Waters proposes stored procedures to normalize this data across any and all time intervals. The payoff is the ability to prioritize remediation efforts that can minimize emissions more quickly.
“What data gives you is a target, a way to see what other people are doing, and what’s working,” Pace said.
Of course, storing and analyzing data also consumes electricity—so the work of decarbonizing data centers is also pressing. Pace pointed to sustainability work by the Open Compute Project to pave the way for more and more efficient data center operations.
Less than zero: Drawdown
To really improve planetary health, we’ll need to go beyond equilibrium and actually start reducing the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. This is the so-called drawdown process.
“Drawdown is specifically about removing greenhouse gases through natural processes, as distinct from industrial processes, although industry has a huge role to play in using these processes,” said Jeff Creque, Director of Rangeland and Agroecosystem Management at the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI).
CCI is a nonprofit organization focused on carbon farming, or the use of farm and agricultural land to remove carbon and store or sequester it in trees, plants, and soil. Forty-eight pounds of carbon stored by each tree annually might not sound like a lot—and Creque thinks that’s a conservative number anyway—but it can add up. Every 100 acres of forestland represents an average carbon sink of 105 metric tons, or 231,525 pounds, each year, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
As with reducing emissions, precision in sequestration data is difficult, but shouldn’t impede progress. Creque said CCI has developed a model to calculate the approximate sequestration potential of carbon farming techniques, which include planting windbreaks that both store carbon as they grow and also improve soil quality. The exact number for any given plot of farmland would vary depending on the local soil and weather conditions, tree types, and many other considerations. Creque pointed to work done at Colorado State University and the COMET tool as useful for determining how conservation practices might affect sequestration at any location.
Purchasing carbon offsets is another tactic for corporations working toward net zero and beyond.
Much of the money from offsets is used for planting trees, while building renewable energy infrastructure to replace fossil fuel burning power generation is another. For this purpose, tools like this calculator, created by the carbon offset nonprofit Cool Effect, may prove useful in approximating emissions from specific activities such as corporate travel.
Whether we’re trapping carbon in forests or working toward reducing emissions, all these efforts, both corporate and individual, must add up quickly to keep global temperatures in check. Data can help illuminate the way.