Is there a technological “silver bullet” for climate change? Clean and digital technologies will obviously be part of any credible solution to global warming… but are they enough on their own? Or will we need to reduce consumption and change our lifestyles in order to live within the environmental limits of the Earth?

US President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, has been criticised for arguing that new technologies (including tech that hasn’t even been invented yet) will allow us to live sustainably without changing our consumption patterns. Some believe that technology (and digital technology in particular) is indeed the “silver bullet” we’re looking for. Others, however, are more cautious, arguing we will need to use every tool at our disposal – including digital and clean technologies – supporting changing lifestyles and reduced consumption of resources. Who’s right?

Want to learn more about how digital technologies might help us fight climate change? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger version):

What do our readers think? As part of the Connected Europe project, we’ve been running a series of online focus groups with a diverse mix of over 300 citizens from 16 European countries.

During one focus group, we had a comment from a young man from Ireland called Ross, who said he’d heard the EU was planning big investments in both green and digital technologies as part of its economic recovery plan:

Image of a citizen[The EU is] basically just throwing money at us and sort of hoping. And it’s also tied in with… sort of a green new deal, a European green new deal and recovery in that way, to create more jobs and also having issues of Artificial Intelligence and other things like that…

We thought it interesting that Ross brought up AI unprompted, and it got us thinking: what’s the overlap between digital tech (and AI in particular) and the green transition? How can AI, for example, help us tackle climate change?

To help find out, we put Ross’ comment to Josh Cowls, Doctoral Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and one of the authors of a recent report on leveraging Artificial Intelligence to combat climate change, published in partnership with the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications. What would he say?

For another perspective, we also spoke to Eirini Malliaraki, a Systems Architect and Designer at Nesta‘s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design. Previously, she oversaw project development on AI for the environment and climate change at the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s National Centre for AI and Data Science. How would she respond to Ross?

Addressing climate change involves mitigation and adaptation. By ‘mitigation’, we mean reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which requires changes to electricity, transportation, buildings, industry, land use – all the different industries and systems that we are part of – whereas ‘adaptation’ requires planning for resilience and disaster management, among other things.

AI, as a stack of data and learning algorithms and sensing devices, is good at working on certain kinds of problems. So, for example, machine learning can help make sense of increasing structured and unstructured data. Let’s say in the energy sector, for example, we can understand patterns in historical data about energy supply and then we can forecast energy demand in the future. Or we can analyse and use satellite photos to manage carbon sinks like peatlands.

Machine learning is also good at quantifying uncertainties. For example, we can forecast extreme weather events and infer climate change risks at the hyperlocal level, and that will help us adapt better.

AI is also good with some problems of prediction; for example in transportation, we can inform infrastructure decisions by modeling current transportation usage and forecasting future demand, and this means that we could potentially plan for shared mobility options that minimise emissions.

Another rough categorisation we can think about is that AI can also help with control problems. So, for example, AI applied in food systems can help better monitor crop yields, reduce the need for chemicals or excess water through precision agriculture, and even minimise food waste through forecasting demand and identifying spoiled produce. Or AI used in buildings and cities can help automatically control heating and cooling, which again contributes to better control of that building and the city it’s in, and minimises the emissions there. So, these are the types of problems that AI can be helpful with when it comes to mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Next up, we had a comment from our Connected Europe study from Benedikt from Germany, who doesn’t think increased resource efficiency from new technologies will be enough to stop climate change. He thinks we will also need to seriously reduce our consumption. For Benedikt, that means lifestyle changes: fewer consumer goods, fewer consumer electronics, less consumption of meat, less travel, etc. Is he right?

We put this comment to Garcia Del Blanco, a Spanish social democratic MEP and member of the European Parliament Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age. Does he think technology can save the planet, or will we also need to reduce consumption by making changes to our lifestyles?

Finally, we had a comment during a focus group from Felix, also from Germany, who worries that the digital technology we use actually produces a lot of CO2 emissions, in terms of electricity and cooling systems, etc.

Felix told us he was unsure if the cost of CO2 emissions from digital technology outweighs the benefits of increased resource efficiency, particularly if we need to scale up our use of digital technology significantly.

We put this comment to AI expert Eirini Malliaraki. Does AI produce a lot of CO2 emissions?

That’s a great question. So, indeed, it’s a fair concern. Recently, the energy consumption of AI systems, specifically deep learning, has come under scrutiny, with notable examples from Google and the recent controversy in their ethics team.

Several factors impact the carbon emitted by neural networks, including the location of the server used for training, the energy grid that it plugs into, the size of the data set that has been used for the training, the hardware where the training takes place – it’s a complex process.

There have been some good efforts to make AI greener; so, for example, researchers can choose to use more computationally efficient hardware and algorithms, or they can report the price tag of their models. There are some tools, like the machine learning emissions calculator that estimate the amount of carbon emissions produced by the training of AI models. Or, on the practitioner side, people may choose to report the time to train models, or share local infrastructure, or choose cloud providers which are offsetting their emissions, which is another great option. The challenge there is that there is opacity in the carbon emissions reporting and energy sources used by the biggest cloud providers. So, advocating for and pressuring for transparency in that reporting will be the first step towards informing better regulation and incentivising practitioners to make more sustainable decisions.

But, overall, I remain kind of optimistic because I’m seeing patterns and signals like increasingly energy efficient processing units, we see efficiencies in servers and storage and hyperscale data centers. Also, other positive signals are that the biggest AI players have made pledges and plans to be carbon neutral. Recently, for example, Microsoft made a pledge to be carbon negative by 2030. Google will launch 5 billion sustainability bonds. Amazon made a pledge to be net zero by 2040.

So, those are all great signs. However, we do need to keep a close eye on these commitments and scrutinise them and see how they’re being implemented in the next five years. But, overall, I remain optimistic in that we are minimising emissions, hopefully, but we need to keep a close eye on this.

Finally, we put the same comment to Josh Cowls. What would he say?

Can digital tech save the planet? How can AI help us tackle climate change? Will new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence be enough to prevent catastrophic global warming or will we need lifestyle changes? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: BigStock – (c)
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36 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar

    Of course this will solve all problems. We will make virtual bicycles, grow virtual potatoos and live in a virtually heated house. What a BS

  2. avatar

    Perhaps technology can improve education, so children will be able to understand there is absolutely nothing wrong with the climate….

    • avatar

      Digital tech really means online communication. Right now in Western EU there’s a new ”human right”: ‘right to digital access’. Computer-literacy is for young people who can afford pc &smartphone connection and fast obsolescent devices. Covid years serve as ideal excuse to restriction, from online bureaucracy to health attention. Administrative silence is easier to impose: just no e-mail anwser. Machine comunication, dialling options, with less human operators. Generations
      raised in videogame values and entertainment lose ability and desire to agora dialogue, where democracy was born. The Roman republic Forum was replaced by emperors for ‘Panis et circenses’ (‘Bread and circus games’).
      People are entertained and encouraged to let elites take care of decision making.
      There are EU webpages with fre access but almost no visitors. Even in youtube , EU videos have few viewers and no comments. EU citizens can just vote MEPs, a Parliament with a “Democratic Deficit” since the 1970s. Commission, Councils, etc. are elected by politician elites.

  3. avatar

    How many energy uses a server? Its a lot !

  4. avatar

    Digital tech can help, but it takes a lot more to change human behaviour.

  5. avatar

    There is nothing to save, it’s a scam to reduce world population

  6. avatar

    Het universum, onze planeet, anderen, heelal , is meester van evolutie, het hersteld of vernietigd , mensen hebben er geen vat op

  7. avatar

    Every claim of a silver boulet is an excuse not to take action on other fields.

  8. avatar

    NO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! the planet is on the orbit with our without humo sapiens ! Stop killing us with ideology set up by people who think that the planet is their village !!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. avatar

    In a few generations humans will be AI’s and digital tech’s pets. Everything will be organised for them they just will have to work and fight for their food, energy and territory.

  10. avatar

    Planet is not to be saved : it saves itself , tne human race well as homo sapiens is muting in homo insciens !

  11. avatar

    Europe and fake climate ideas . The new trend for robbing the working class people!

  12. avatar

    sauvez la terre, éliminons les alarmistes de la sphère politique et dénonçons l’arnaque

  13. avatar
    EU Reform Proactive


    Recklessly applied, it will accelerate the extinction process, increase pollution & make life on earth more miserable.

    The situation is exacerbated by the economic competition between the global powers & proxy wars, some unspecified promises made by politicians- be it a 2014 Merkel ‘All Welcome’, or the consequences of a ‘natural’ increase in the global population (see the previous theme), where everyone competes, gets assisted and struggles to improve their destiny. All industries feeding the demand for war & peace included.

    A continuous population increase will probably trigger Darwin’s proven theory of ‘natural selection’- despite the varied & different beliefs. ‘Digital tech’ will not do the job for politicians or industries.

    It is just more of “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” political rhetoric by some- like US John Kerry- that ‘digital tech’ will become the saviour of humankind while being just another tool to assist on our path forging our common destiny!

    It is an extension of the 1st industrial revolution which started 260 years ago in England then engulfing Europe & spreading further. It is foremost the decisions by politicians & the captains of industry to apply these tools constructively, sensibly and responsibly! So far, we’ve seen mixed results and ever-growing concerns!

    Yes, the West pioneered & achieved the widely cheered ‘progress’ to improve their living standards and many others. These global events & race over time are vividly shown by the late Prof Rosling with one of his many lively graphic statistics:

    Low & high tech was used always: be they warriors, conquerors, the past royals & churches, their faded empires, the revolutionaries, the entrepreneurs, the honest & the not so honest, the weak & strong, the researchers, inventors and innovators to heal & care, the schemers, the criminals, the brainwashers, the marketers of politics, products and propaganda, the news peddlers of facts, fake news and blatant lies- the list goes on!

    Destructive & devious human behaviour cannot be prevented by high or low tech & has nothing to do with an accelerator like digital tech. In the absence of believing in a higher authority than men, is there a wish for miracles?

    Not the EU, the US or an environmental unfriendly G7 meeting with photoshoots showing happiness from all angles, where most of the times the Covid19 protocol was disappointedly ignored, marshmallows were toasted on the beach, probably demonstrating a return to ancient & green cooking and maybe even consulting the Oracle of Apollo across the channel? Nothing will save the planet from delusive human behaviour.

    The worst scenario created by ‘digital tech’ and driven by a mode of survival and corporation of the most similar can only accelerate the depletion of the earth’s resources and pave the way to a further extinction of species & finally the human species. Where is the ‘digital tech’ Help button located on the keyboard?

    Maybe our appetite for ever more technical innovation will reach a point of a “technological singularity“- as perceived by some scientists?

    Which in turn triggers a “technological wave of (technical) unemployment” as never experienced before. This may deliver anything from a futuristic tech asylum cum paradise on Moon, Mars or other planets for a few to total industrial deindustrialization and social collapse for the remaining folks.

    Unbelievable, what a great future the ‘digital tech’ accelerator has in store for us!

  14. avatar

    I’m from Bulgaria. The poorest country in the EU. Since 1989 the new political elite of Bulgaria constantly repeat to Bulgarian people that we have to be patient, to wait and to change our habits in order for better days to come. Wait until we join NATO, wait until we join the EU, wait until we join the Eurozone and even you don’t live long enough to welcome the better days, don’t worry – everything is free in the afterlife. The life of several generations was wasted because of false promises of the ruling class who told them to be patient and to live humbly while the political ,,elite” live like kings. So the answer is no, I would never change my habits and way of life for empty promises.

  15. avatar

    I’m a vegetarian myself, but I’ve heard people float the idea of eating the World Economic Forum. Good idea? Bad idea?

    • avatar

      new business idea: meat-free WEF alternatives

    • avatar

      Debating Europe WEF is dangerous, even for us vegetarians.

  16. avatar

    Would you be willing to consider many differtent ways of living at this moment and project them in to your utopia and ask your question again specifically adjusted to the respective public you talk to?I mean lots of peoples do live the right way right now ,saving the planet ,while others don’t.

  17. avatar

    I want the capitalists to change their habits first.

  18. avatar

    First, THEY stop experiments in the climate, to spread toxic products in the sky, to cut down trees ( They have to be replanted in masse to reduce CO, CO2, greenhouse gases. All are the result of THEIR misdeeds, the world population is not responsible!). Then we can talk about changing our habits…

  19. avatar

    NO.. Not everyone is stupid enough to believe that hypocrite people like you, WEF, WHO, philantropics,.. stand above nature. It’s all about power, control and money. First you destroy our lives to BBB.. No way, hope everyone wakes up in time!

  20. avatar

    Stop forcing people in Europeto get that jab oh no 3 jabs so they can visit Europe. This is against Human Rights. You cannot force a experimental vaccine to humans.

  21. avatar

    climate change is Earth s history.It happens in many directions. Policies to ease negative consequences must be carefully planned and documented. Nothing like that happens today

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