The stakes are high: using data to accelerate the energy transition
Hi! I’m Tom. I recently joined Centre for Net Zero as a research data engineer.
For my PhD in Chemistry I set out to make cheaper components for solar panels with the ambition of turning it into a business. But like most PhDs, it didn’t go to plan. I left academia and for over six years I worked as a data scientist in fintech startups. I learnt a lot about the challenges of wrangling with real-world data and building maintainable software and robust machine learning models. It was fun and intellectually challenging. Yet I had a nagging feeling that there were more meaningful problems I could work on.
Becoming a parent made me take stock of my career. I read the problem profiles written by 80,000 Hours, a non-profit that helps people switch into careers that tackle the world’s most pressing problems, and spoke to one of their career advisors. I put together a shortlist of high-impact problems I could potentially work on and evaluated each one.
Climate change came out on top. I read Project Drawdown to learn about the myriad ways we can reduce CO2 emissions. After a brief, sleep-deprived spell of enthusiasm about nut farming and agroforestry, I realised energy was where I could put my skills to use. So I seized the opportunity to join the team at Centre for Net Zero.
Our mission is to realise faster, fairer and more affordable paths to net zero. We’re focussing on the next 0–5 and 5–10 years where we believe there is an urgent need for actionable plans to help us reach net zero carbon emissions, supported by quantitative analysis and data. Technology plays a key role.
Researchers at Google wrote about how poor quality data has a major impact in high-stakes AI problems, like healthcare and conservation. At CNZ, the stakes are similarly high: if our conclusions are wrong then we could delay the transition to net zero. To help mitigate this risk we will take a data-centric view to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the data going into our research — data is political because it is a product of human judgements about what should and shouldn’t be counted.
If humanity is to stand a chance of reaching net zero we must collaborate. In my PhD I led by example by publishing code and open access papers. So I’m excited that CNZ will similarly publish its models and datasets so other people can experiment and replicate our findings.
Time is not on our side. I’m looking forward to introducing software development practices common in startups to CNZ, like test-driven development and continuous delivery, so that we can move fast and mitigate climate change together.