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Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come a long way in the past few years, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Increasingly, AI is being discussed as a tool to help solve some of the pressing environmental problems our planet is facing. There is indeed a significant and important role for AI to play in helping solve the climate crisis, however it’s equally important to recognize this as it is imperative that we educate ourselves on the ways in which AI contributes to climate change and its potential negative impacts. A push and pull exists between AI’s beneficial implications in the environmental sphere and its contributions to the very issues it is being used to tackle. In this blog post, we will discuss both how AI can help address climate change and how AI can be a threat to the environment, contrasting these opposing forces and highlighting the best way to move forwards.
We are currently facing a multifaceted environmental crisis, in which we are seeing issues such as climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, among others. AI is a powerful tool making waves in a number of industries, including mental health services, education, art, and medicine. This technology is already being deployed in the environmental sphere in order to help solve the climate crisis, and there are high hopes for its potential in this arena. A study published in Nature Communications looked at the impact on AI of the achievement of each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations, which can be grouped into Environment, Economy and Society. It was found that, for the goals grouped under the Environment pillar, the development of AI inhibited 30% and enabled 93%.
Source: Springer Nature Sustainability Community
An article by earth.org provides a great overview of the different areas in which AI is already being used to help address environmental issues and challenges, or where it has the potential to do so in the future. The categories mentioned in the article are as follows:
- Climate change
- Biodiversity and conservation
- Healthy oceans
- Water security
- Clean air
- Weather and disaster resilience
How AI Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis
The beneficial implications of AI are many, and we will explore a few of the ways in which AI is being used to address some of the environmental issues we are currently facing. One important application is the use of AI for the analysis of climate data, as AI tools have the capacity to crunch large amounts of data more quickly than humans ever could in order to help predict climate patterns and changes. A fantastic example of this is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s World Environment Situation Room (WESR), a “digital platform that is leveraging AI’s capabilities to analyze complex, multifaceted datasets.” The platform “curates, aggregates and visualizes the best available earth observation and sensor data to inform near real-time analysis and future predictions on multiple factors, including CO2 atmospheric concentration, changes in glacier mass and sea level rise.” The goal here is to use AI to analyze large amounts of climate data in order to subsequently generate insights that can be used by governments and organizational bodies to make decisions more efficiently.
Another way in which AI is being used to combat climate change is in the development of smart transportation options, specifically in terms of autonomous or self-driving vehicles. This is an industry that has received a lot of attention in recent years – in fact, we have an entire blog post on it! A report from UC Davis estimates that driverless vehicles could “reduce the amount of vehicles and carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent or greater worldwide [by 2050].” In addition to autonomous driving technology, apps such as Google Maps and Waze are using machine learning to aggregate and provide information about traffic in real-time in order to improve transportation.
Some other use cases of AI in the environmental sphere include smart agriculture and the use of data from various sensors to improve production; ocean protection efforts using satellite images, sensor data and AI-powered robots to complete tasks such as the tracking of illegal fishing and the monitoring of pollution levels and temperature; and disaster preparedness and response strategies using AI simulations to better anticipate disasters and generate appropriate and timely responses. While the possibilities for AI to play a significant role in solving the climate crisis and responding to our planet’s current environmental challenges are both many and undeniable, it is imperative that we acknowledge the flip side as well; that AI is not without its drawbacks when it comes to our environment.
How AI is Contributing to the Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It
As we have mentioned, when discussing the benefits of AI in tackling environmental issues it is important that we do not forget about its contribution to these same issues. AI systems require vast amounts of energy and generate huge quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The European Council cites a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, which “found that training a large AI model to handle human language can lead to emissions of nearly 300,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, about five times the emissions of the average car in the US, including its manufacture.” If that alone isn’t enough, an article published by The Register states that the carbon footprint resulting from training GPT-3 is estimated to be equivalent to driving a car to the moon and back. These are powerful examples that paint a clear picture of just how significant the emissions from the development of AI are.
It is thus important that we are aware of AI’s impact on our environment and its ability both to help us address climate change and exacerbate it. We must take care to ensure AI is used responsibly and with due consideration for its impacts on our planet – only then can AI become a viable force in helping us tackle climate change. AI has the potential to provide us with incredible insights, but it must be handled carefully in order to maximize its potential benefits and minimize its drawbacks on the environment.