Is AI Bad For the Climate?
Climate change is a clear and present danger to the world economy. The tech industry bears its share of responsibility, not just for carbons emission but deforestation, plastic, chemical and other waste contamination, resource depletion and other damaging activities.
But the tech industry also has the capacity to dramatically change the trajectory of all these problems; to at least slow down, if not reverse, the harm being done to our one and only planet.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) in particular is already having a remarkable impact on issues that seemed intractable only a few years ago. Rather than being bad for the climate, AI is proving to help. With the proper data leveraged in the proper ways, it turns out we may be able to avoid some of the most dire consequences arising in the most current environmental projection models. (Read also: Eco-Karma: How Climate Change is Harming Data Infrastructure.)
Tackling Climate Change With AI
According to Capgemini, nearly half of all businesses in "heavy impact" industries like automotive, energy and manufacturing are applying AI to their climate-related initiatives, and they are already showing results.
Greenhouse gas emissions, for example, are down by nearly 13 percent, while power efficiency has climbed nearly 11 percent since 2017. At the same time, solid waste has been cut by 11.7 percent. As these initiatives take root, Capgemini expects they will be responsible for corporations across the globe meeting nearly half of their Economic Emission Intensity (EEI) targets under the Paris Agreement.
Capgemini says AI use cases are emerging across a wide range of business activities, primarily in areas related to energy consumption and optimization. For instance, greater insight into product manufacturing can identify defects in both the products themselves and assembly lines. It can then correct these faults without having to shut down processes and start them up again, which consumes quite a bit of energy.
AI has also proven adept at tracing leaks at industrial sites, optimizing airflow around heat-generating equipment and streamlining both the sourcing of raw materials and shipment of final products to consumers. (Read also: How is Technology Helping Combat Climate Change?)
AI Developments for Climate Change
Meanwhile, AI is proving its use in the development of new tools and processes that will stress energy efficiency and proper environmental stewardship as core attributes. Author and business consultant Bernard Marr notes that AI is currently spearheading the development of entirely new green energy solutions, like a series of hydrodams earmarked for the Amazon basin. Researchers at Cornell University ran a number of development models through various AI engines and discovered one that produced optimal results for greenhouse emissions. This solution likely would not have been identified using earlier generations of analytics.
AI is also finding ways to develop low-carbon materials, better transportation systems, advanced battery technologies and a host of other cutting-edge technologies that promise significant strides in the drive to create a more sustainable economy.
Even as AI requires substantial computing environments which themselves consume energy and contribute to global emissions and waste, it is also working to minimize this impact to both reduce operating costs and overhead for the data industry and ensure a more livable planet.
Can AI Help Climate Change?
For most of human history, economic growth has moved hand-in-hand with environmental degradation. Even during the long agricultural era, increased farming led to loss of habitat, soil erosion, resource mismanagement and other detriments – and this continued through the Industrial Revolution and well into the modern communications age. But some researchers are hopeful that AI can reverse this trend, essentially decoupling expanding prosperity from environmental destruction.
A recent report by EIT Climate – KIC, a European community action organization, claims this decoupling can impact two critical areas in particular: carbon (CO2) emissions and resource consumption.
On the CO2 front, AI is already being applied to power grids and energy generation infrastructure to ensure that supply more accurately meets demand. By precisely predicting energy ebbs and flows, AI ensures that fossil fuels are not being consumed unnecessarily, either at the power generation plant or in the supply chain.
When it comes to resources, AI is detecting a wide range of previously unrecognized practices that contribute to wasted water, land and other elements. By correctly gauging agricultural production and minimizing food waste, the world’s farmers become more profitable and the population more well-fed even as the impact on the environment diminishes. (Read also: The 6 Most Amazing AI Advances in Agriculture.)
With these and other initiatives underway, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) anticipates that the world can see a 10 to 20 percent reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030. If all goes well, this should help limit the increase in global average temperature to below the pre-industrial 2 degrees Celsius level, perhaps to as low as 1.5 degrees C.
Since AI will be infused into the worldwide monitoring infrastructure designed to measure this impact, it will play a key role in determining if these goals are being met and what steps need to be taken to meet or even exceed them.
Is AI Good For the Climate?
Nothing about climate change is easy. Global ecology is about as complex a system as anything devised by man, with countless factors determining both macro and micro changes in weather patterns, land erosion, ocean currents and a wide range of other systems. AI specializes in exactly this kind of number-crunching, finding patterns and insights far more quickly than an entire team of experienced scientists.
If ever there was a case in which technology can produce a global net benefit for humanity, this is it.