The world is coming to a watershed moment. Unless we collectively halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, climate change could unleash havoc on our planet that will affect all aspects of society from food production to human health and the economy.
And yet despite the looming impact of widespread droughts, floods, and extreme heat — global emissions are still set to rise by 10% over the next eight years.
This year’s Global Climate Action summit, COP28, was an opportunity for world leaders to come together to pledge systemic, global action, and agree on the solutions to tackle climate change.
AI represents one of these best hopes as research shows it could have a transformative effect by scaling proven technologies to reduce global emissions by up to 10% by 2030. That’s the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the European Union.
Whilst there is no simple fix to the climate emergency, digital technology — like AI — has a critical enabling role to play. Here’s what experts have to say about how businesses can leverage AI and technological innovation to build a more sustainable future.
Timing is key. While AI regulation heats up, so does the globe
Transitioning to a more sustainable future is going to be challenging — both for Google and for the world at large — and there’s no playbook for making it happen. But AI is one of our best opportunities to scale proven applications and technologies to accelerate progress in this decisive decade for climate action.
We can use AI to help unlock more rapid progress on climate action by providing better information to individuals, enabling businesses to optimise operations more efficiently, and improving predictions and forecasting for governments.
One example is helping airlines mitigate the climate impact of contrails, which account for 35% of aviation's global warming impact. Bringing together huge amounts of data — satellite imagery, weather, and flight path data — we used AI to develop contrail forecast maps that enabled pilots to reduce contrails by 54%.
Policymakers globally have been focused on promoting the responsible development of AI — which is critical. But they must also pursue a policy agenda to harness AI's potential to solve big challenges like climate change.
While the scale of change required is daunting, we must not underestimate the power of technology to drive real emissions reductions. Enabling this technology may prove one of the most impactful climate actions we can take today, and would provide a vital down payment on goals to cut emissions in half by the end of this decade.
Make AI a force for climate good, not just profit
As a coalition of NGOs that work on climate change, we partner with companies to help them decarbonise faster…and digital technology is essential to achieving this.
The exciting thing is that because of AI we now have the ability to combine data sets to uncover insights and predict what's going to happen more accurately. Like combining weather forecasts with actual demand, to better deploy renewable energy into the power grid or optimise storage.
The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that AI is just a tool. It can have a huge impact in tackling climate change or it can be used to just make money, which depletes the earth’s resources in our current system. And it's not AI itself that's going to make the choice, it's people.
Governments and companies need to decide. And fast. AI can either shift the trajectory that we're on or accelerate the pace at which we're heading in the wrong direction.
Digital technology can enable sustainable action
The transition to a lower carbon future is not just about decarbonising the world economy. It is about transitioning to a world that can provide prosperity to people from all regions, living on a healthy, biodiverse planet.
Without digital innovation it is impossible to achieve this transition. This is because digital technology is an enabler for the most transformative types of sustainable action.
AI is a must to support climate change as it can analyse vast amounts of data to perform complex calculations and simulations that inform new strategic thinking, such as land use planning and site selection that enable 15-minutes cities.
Fifteen-minute cities, where most of the product and services are available at walking or biking distance within 15 minutes, are essential if we are to remove the need for cars — a major source of carbon emissions.
The transition to companies becoming sustainable needs to be facilitated by new policies. Businesses operating in “dirty” value chains will not shift unless there is a profitable alternative. For example, we did not transition from horse to car by taxing horses. Likewise now is the time we need to invest in innovative technological solutions.
Climate change will impact our health
One Campaign is a movement of people who are mobilising their voices to convince governments to invest in the fight against poverty, inequality and climate change.
When we talk about digital technology and climate, we think of its power in helping people understand the world, helping them understand their agency within it, and in bringing them together — with a collective voice — to push for the necessary finance to transition our energy systems.
One area I don't think talked about enough is the impact of climate change on our health. For example, extreme heat is changing the migratory patterns of birds, which could lead to new pandemics. And in Tanzania, snake bites are becoming more prevalent as the heat is forcing them to move in different directions. For all these disruptions, we need AI to increase sequencing of viruses and produce vaccines or solutions much faster.
To avoid going beyond the 1.5C threshold, we need technology to do three things. Firstly, to generate the energy needed to live our lives in a way that doesn't contribute to carbon emissions. For this, we need the technology (e.g. solar, wind, battery) as well as a reduction in production costs and market forces to fuel this transition.
Secondly, we need technology to increase efficiency in how we use energy and how we use our time and resources. A good example is Google Maps, which can help you plot your journey to avoid traffic that would have otherwise resulted in sitting in the car for longer periods and increased carbon emissions.
Finally, we need technology — communication and organisation tools — to help people understand the severity of the issue. This can then mobilise local communities into action and convince political leaders to take risks with big legislative change and investment.
We’re living in unchartered territory in terms of the scale of disruption climate change is going to cause to our planet. And that means rapid innovation is required.
Use AI to save reporting time and focus on progress
Addressing the climate crisis transcends geography and local interests. To solve it requires truly integrated and innovative technology.
Our Digital With Purpose report shows that whilst digital technologies will close the gap on some of the 2030 targets, approximately a third of the targets will deteriorate further, even after increased technology adoption.
We’re at the beginning of thinking about what AI can do to help climate change. For example, if you look at the sustainability teams of many large, publicly-traded companies they spend a significant amount of time on climate reporting.
AI could allow companies to dramatically reduce the time spent consolidating and reporting on sustainability performance and increase the time used for exploring how digital solutions can better enable their sustainability goals.
Innovation takes time and energy. I hope that AI empowers sustainability practitioners to spend more time on innovation and progress.