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AI can help to reduce carbon footprint and manage environmental issues

Artificial intelligence-powered applications could help policy-makers and industry leaders manage greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainability initiatives

A report from PwC and Microsoft has concluded that artificial intelligence (AI) could be deployed to manage environmental impacts and climate change.

The authors of the report, How AI can enable a sustainable future, urged stakeholders across the public, private and third sectors to be involved in unlocking AI to tackle environmental challenges to its fullest potential.

According to PwC and Microsoft, using AI could reduce worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 4% in 2030, an amount equivalent to 2.4 gigatonne equivalent (GTCO2e) of carbon dioxide emissions  – equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined.

PwC and Microsoft predicted that environmentally-oriented AI applications carry a big GHG mitigation potential for almost all regions, with North America and East Asia potentially reducing their GHG emissions by 1.6% to 6.1% and 2.7% to 4.8% in 2030, respectively.

The report proposed a number of possible applications for AI to support environmental initiatives, such as the analysis of satellite data and ground-based sensors to monitor forest conditions in real time and at scale, providing early warning systems for investigation of illegal deforestation, with the potential to save 32 million hectares of forest globally by 2030. Air pollution is another use case for AI, where it could be deployed to provide more accurate and localised early warnings of poor air quality.

The report predicted that AI applications in energy and transport would have the largest impact on emissions reduction. PwC and Microsoft estimated that the energy sector could reduce greenhouse gas emission by up to 2.2%, while in transport, AI could result in a 1.7% cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the report’s authors, AI combined with the adoption of a complementary technology infrastructure such as AI-enabled distributed energy grids, distributed generation, distributed storage, industrial IoT, electric vehicle charging, dynamic pricing and smart meters in the energy sector, would have the biggest impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

In the report, they also noted that the agriculture and water sectors have a vital role in preserving the health of the Earth’s natural systems, including biodiversity conservation, ocean health, freshwater quality, biogeochemical flows, forests and land system change, and related impacts on the security of food and water supply.

For instance, AI combined with precision agriculture, sustainable supply chains and environmental monitoring could be deployed in agriculture to reduce the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions and support initiatives to reduce water wastage. The report said: “Our analysis suggests that agricultural AI applications can help reduce emissions by up to 160 megatonne equivalent of  CO2 emissions in 2030 while providing more food, and using fewer resources.”

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Through the Paris Agreement, governments have signed up to reduce carbon emissions by 2050. PwC’s figures suggest that AI can help countries achieve their Paris Agreement objectives using AI applications that exist today, according to Celine Herweijer, global innovation and sustainability leader  at PwC UK, who co-authored the report.

“We cannot only rely on market responses,” she said. “We need a more transformative change. It’s early days for AI, but there is an impetus in having a faster response to climate change.

“Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature. The research shows the potential of emerging technology to directly support decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions in the near and long term.”

Herweijer said organisations should be looking to find environmental and sustainability benefits from their ongoing digitisation initiatives. She added: “Digitisation, decentralised grids and decarbonisation are top of mind in energy companies.”

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