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:
[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!
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