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Accelerating sustainability with virtual twins

5-minute read

January 26, 2021

Virtual twins drive sustainability and the circular economy at speed and scale. They help companies reduce their costs, resource use and carbon footprint. They support disruptive innovation and agile, customer-centric business models. And virtual twins can unlock combined additional benefits of $1.3 trillion in economic value and 7.5 Gt CO2e emissions reductions by 2030.

By Simon Bentley and Tony Murdzhev, Accenture

Accenture and Dassault Systèmes have partnered together to advance the potential of virtual twin technologies. The result is a comprehensive report that examines related use cases in several industries, including consumer goods, mobility, and construction. We hope this new analysis will help encourage more leaders to adopt these technologies, helping to accelerate a sustainable transformation towards a more circular economy. Our findings indicate that if industries, governments, and societies were to implement virtual twins, they could meet goals like the UN Sustainable Development Goals more easily or even faster.

Virtual twin

The benefits of virtual twins are numerous but most important is how these technologies can significantly support the transition towards a more circular economy (i.e., an economy where parts and products are designed in a way which makes for easy re-use and re-purposing, and eliminates waste from the life cycle). Virtual twins enable reduced product life cycle times, improve manufacturing quality and control, and they drive more efficient use and recovery of resources across a product life cycle.

Virtual twin technologies can also increase the speed of time-to-market, while reducing the risk associated with complex projects. Because of this, virtual twins have been used in the development of 85 percent of the world’s electric vehicles and more than 75 percent of global wind power. Virtual twins have also powered breakthrough sustainability pilots such as electric furnaces, the world’s first solar airplane, and new biomaterials. In 2020, the global virtual twin market was estimated to have a value of just over 5.4 billion dollars, yet it is projected to grow at a CAGR of 36 percent over the next five years.

Industry deep dive: construction and cities

Commercial and residential buildings currently account for 40 percent of global energy demand, 60 percent of the world’s electricity and 25 percent of global water usage. Commercial and residential buildings are responsible for approximately a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

But, by using proven and commercially available virtual twin technologies, energy consumption in buildings can be reduced by 30 to 80 percent. Virtual twins can also be used within the broader framework of smart cities to maximize impact, which can result in:

  • $288 billion reduction in building operating costs through reduction in energy consumption, maintenance, planning and commissioning costs
  • 6.9 CO2e reduction in building operations emissions as a result of improved energy management (12,032 TWh of savings)

For example, integrated facility management service provider Aden created a virtual twin for one of its commercial centers in Chengdu, China. The virtual twin monitors, aggregates and analyzes data to plan and execute inspection, maintenance and repair activities. Energy consumption under different operating conditions is predicted and optimized. Expected benefits include reduced annual energy consumption by 20 percent plus lower water usage and waste generation. Aden also forecasts improved health and safety performance.

Industry deep dive: consumer packaged goods

The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry currently accounts for two-thirds of international trade volumes, and due to its size, the industry faces significant sustainability challenges. Agriculture, forestry and land use account for nearly a quarter of global GHG emissions and a third of global food production is wasted across the value chain.

Virtual twin technologies establish a new way of approaching sustainability by design. Within the CPG industry, this can be critical as design decisions can be linked to 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact. Virtual twins enable the integration of sustainability objectives at the start of the product lifecycle, as this is where environmental impacts and product costs are determined. Virtual prototyping allows for faster design iterations and reduces the need for physical tests, driving significant CO2 benefits. This can result in:

  • $131 billion reduction in raw material usage costs
  • $6 billion reduction in product development costs
  • 281 Mt CO2e reduction in embedded product footprint as a result of better LCA output visibility and improved decision-making

Industry deep dive: transportation and mobility

Emissions from transport, broadly comprising of road, rail, air and marine, accounted for about 25 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2016. And these emissions are projected to grow faster than any other sector’s, posing a key challenge in decarbonizing the global economy.

Research suggests that zero-emission and autonomous vehicles both have a critical role to play if we are to achieve our global GHG reduction targets, and virtual twins have a long history in automotive applications. It is estimated that by the end of 2020, 65 percent of automotive manufacturers will be using simulation and virtual twins to operate products and assets.

With a virtual twin, an OEM can test out multiple designs and features which can help determine how the design measures against relevant policies, standards, and regulations. Additionally, virtual twins enable the faster development of autonomous vehicles. A significantly reduced carbon footprint can be achieved by substituting a big portion of the total test mileage required with simulations. This can result in:

  • $429 billion cost avoidance in autonomous vehicle development via simulation
  • $261 billion cost reduction in product development
  • 227 Mt CO2e emissions avoidance in autonomous vehicle development
  • 2 Mt CO2e emissions reduction from physical prototypes and test vehicles

Industry deep dive: life sciences

Life sciences broadly encompasses pharmaceuticals, biopharmaceuticals, biotech and medtech, and the industry is increasingly important to achieving our Global Goals as data suggests that the industry’s GHG emissions are increasing. This comes despite efforts to decarbonize due to increasing drug demand globally. Moreover, analysis finds that the global pharmaceutical industry is approximately 55 percent more emissions intensive than the automotive industry.

Virtual twin applications in production plants can drive benefits for the environment. For example, botanical pharmaceuticals manufacturing can achieve significant process time reduction (factors 5—20) resulting in cost of goods reduction (factors of 2—10) and GHG emissions abatement (factors 4—20).

In this use case, the virtual twin is of the production process. Simulations of these processes can enable scientists and plant operators to run multiple scenarios with the objective of finding the optimal configuration, accelerate the speed and accuracy and reduce waste, including related emissions. This can result in:

  • $106 billion reduction in cost of goods sold due to lower operating expenses
  • 61 Mt CO2e reduction in production GHG emissions

An example of this is Sanofi’s Framingham Lighthouse facility, which is a digitally enabled, continuous manufacturing facility. Virtual twin technologies optimize remote manufacturing through the use of real-time data capture and analysis. The whole industrial process is digitalized and paperless, and it is 80 times more productive than a traditional factory. Within the facility, observed performance indicator improvements include: 80 percent reduction in energy consumption and CO2e emissions per year; 91 percent reduction in water footprint; 94 percent reduction in use of chemicals and 321 tons of waste reduction per year.

Industry deep dive: electrical and electronics

The electrical and electronics industry faces tough sustainability challenges. For example, the manufacturing of electronic equipment generates over a third of associated CO2e life cycle emissions. Likewise, the appropriate disposal and recycling of products is another major issue—only 17.4 percent of 53.6 million tons of e-waste was properly disposed of, collected and recycled in 2019.

Virtual twins can help the electrical and electronics industry overcome these challenges. The technology enables product designers to embed and follow circular economy principles throughout each stage of design, and they can help guide waste management organizations as they tackle the e-waste problem. This can result in:

  • $73 billion in additional revenue from the increase in refurbishment and reuse of equipment
  • 31 Mt CO2e emissions reduction from the release of refrigerants through better handling of waste
  • 5 Mt CO2e emissions avoided by decreasing the total amount of informally processed e-waste

Dutch startup Circularise focuses on commercializing blockchain-based transparency and traceability technologies for the circular economy. Circularise’s solution enables stakeholders across value chains to share information on product material content and flows. These could be mining companies, electronics manufacturers, collection services and recycling companies. Circularise has also developed proprietary methodology to safely manage IP rights, which enables clients to avoid sharing commercially sensitive information with the industry ecosystem.


Based on our analysis, virtual twins can deliver up to $1.3 trillion of economic value and 7.5 Gt CO2e emissions reductions between now and 2030. They drive disruptive innovation and design, enable new service development, reduce health and safety and environment risks, and they encourage cross-functional collaboration and co-working. Through our study, it is clear that virtual twins can be used to power systemic progress towards a more circular, and significantly less carbon-intensive, economic system and these technologies are key to us achieving our Global Goals by 2030.


Tony Murdzhev

Consultant – Accenture Strategy – Sustainability