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AI and Sustainability

Artificial Intelligence Could be a Fundamental Tool in Creating a More Sustainable Planet

Artificial Intelligence (AI) refers to the ability of machines to mimic human capabilities such as learning from examples and experience, recognizing objects, understanding and responding to language, making decisions, and solving problems. Combining these different capabilities, a machine can perform complex functions that can ultimately support humans in performing complex tasks.

With the new wave of AI and machine learning, we can see how these latest technologies can benefit the current and future world. Today, AI has the ability to mimic human speech, diagnose cancers, draft legal documents, and perform other numerous tasks humans never once imagined to be possible. Because of this, there is an expanding impact of AI's various abilities on an increasing range of sectors and industries from education and financial markets to marketing and supply chain management.

The adoption of AI by these various industries creates a huge potential for future growth and economic impacts. However, while AI has been able to improve many industries, its level of impact on the sustainability industry is hard to determine.

Interestingly, AI and technology are commonly associated with being the opposite of the natural world. There seems to be a lack of social trust in machines' ability to create social good beyond the economy. Nevertheless, there is a huge potential for AI’s positive impact in different fields of sustainability including healthcare, hunger prevention, and environmental protection.

As a way to appropriately assess the emergence of AI and its ability to help achieve environmental sustainability, we can look at its effect on the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal, used a consensus-based expert elicitation process and found that AI can enable the accomplishment of 134 sustainable targets across all the goals, however, it may also inhibit 59 of those targets.

For example, within the Sustainable Development Goal's Environment group, including 28 targets from goals 13, 14, and 15, there is documented evidence of 26 targets enabled and 8 targets inhibited by AI. When looking at the United Nation's 13th sustainable development goal - to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, there is substantial evidence that AI advancements will support the understanding of climate change and the modeling of its possible consequences.

For instance, AI can support low-carbon energy systems with high integration of renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are all relevant when addressing climate change.

Furthermore, the United Nation’s 14th sustainable development goal is to conserve and sustainably use the oceans and marine resources for sustainable development. AI can be used to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds by creating algorithms for automatic identification of possible oil spills.

Lastly, the 15th sustainable development goal is to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. This goal can benefit from AI techniques and satellite images that help to identify desertification trends over large areas. Information like this is almost impossible to achieve without the neural networks and objective-oriented techniques of AI.

It should be known that these technology-heavy positive efforts do not come without consequences. Efforts to achieve certain targets and goals may be undermined by the high-energy needs for AI applications, especially if non-carbon-neutral energy sources are used.

With all of the positives and negatives considered, businesses and corporations have started implementing investments in AI to drive innovation, improve business operations, and be in line with a more sustainable future. Google, for example, is a leader in using AI to be more in line with a sustainable future. They use an AI model to reduce the energy load of its resource-hungry data centers, reducing their energy cost of cooling by 40%.

We have also seen these types of efforts in the coal industry with Xcel Energy, a coal-burning and nitrous oxide-emitting utility company. They use AI to better predict energy consumption patterns and adapt its operating systems, thus significantly boosting efficiency by around 20%, and Carbon Tracker, a climate advocacy think-tank, using AI to track emissions from coal plants using satellite imagery. Using this satellite data, they help guide investments toward lower-footprint ventures.

While AI provides incredible opportunities for advancements, it may not always result in only a positive outcome. There is great potential for AI to accelerate the global efforts to protect the environment and conserve resources if used through clean power alternatives and smarter technologies.

Jennifer Lusk, Intern

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