AI and climate change: Can it create a sustainable future?

With global companies working to stay ahead in AI development, time will tell if these softwares can be used to combat the looming issue of climate change

Co-Founder and CEO of Google DeepMind, Demis Hassabis, recently called for the world to treat the risks of AI as seriously as the climate crisis as a matter of urgency.

As reported by The Guardian, the technology leader said: “We must take the risks of AI as seriously as other major global challenges, like climate change … It took the international community too long to coordinate an effective global response to this, and we’re living with the consequences of that now. We can’t afford the same delay with AI.”

In a world that continues to heavily utilise AI and find new use cases, can AI and machine learning tools help mitigate the impacts of climate change?

Supply and demand: Evolving AI needs in a sustainable way

Climate instability is a fundamental global issue and industries must work to ensure that they are prepared for every eventuality. Those within the technology industry could be set to play an instrumental role in new global environmental initiatives focused on climate change, with AI as a crucial solution.

For example, the insurance industry has already struggled within an unpredictable landscape filled with destructive weather patterns. With AI and machine learning tools, insurers could undertake catastrophe modelling to estimate the likelihood of damage if a climate catastrophe were to strike. Utilising historical data, the impact of a large-scale extreme weather event, such as a hurricane or flash flood, can be factored into property risk assessment.

Likewise, large technology companies like Google Research have partnered with American Airlines to use AI to develop contrail forecast maps to test if pilots can avoid creating contrails. The result could be that pilots would be able to choose different flight paths to avoid contrail forming areas and mitigate climate impact.

However, Google DeepMind is clear to recognise that climate change is not just an issue for AI to handle, but it is the responsibility of humanity to improve our current landscape. This highlights a need for collaboration, as companies and researchers strategise solutions.

Bernard Marr suggests that policymakers could use AI-generated models to identify the most effective strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He says that this could promote adaptation and enhance resilience, with officials being able to use AI to track their effectiveness so that governments can use resources as effectively as possible.

Other solutions: Global government regulations

On a larger global scale, it is paramount that governments and regulatory bodies cooperate to ensure that AI is being developed and utilised in ways that are ethical and genuinely beneficial to businesses and wider society.

Large technology companies are already starting to focus more on the safe and responsible development of frontier AI models. Organisations like the Frontier Model Forum have been established earlier in 2023 which aim to advance AI safety and promote responsible development of frontier models.

They also aim to help the public understand the capabilities, limitations of AI technology, as well as minimising risks and developing greater safety. It is clear that this level of impact could also be utilised to combat climate change and offer businesses new ways to come up with sustainable solutions.

Similarly, the UK government has launched a Frontier AI task force, which aims to create guidelines for testing cutting-edge AI models and could ultimately become a benchmark for international-level testing efforts.

In his October 2023 speech on AI within the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke on the country’s new £100m (US$120m) investment into AI, as well as a new task force. 

The initiatives have taken inspiration from the intergovernmental panel on climate change by establishing a ‘truly global expert panel’, with Sunak adding: “My vision and our ultimate goal should be towards a more international approach to safety, where we collaborate with partners to ensure AI systems are safe before they are released.”

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