AI is a potentially game changing technology capable of accelerating actions that reduce carbon emissions. The flip side is it generates its own negative environmental impact, as highlighted by a new report out today, which means the challenge is on to develop policies and strategies which ensure the good outstrips the harm.

To develop truly net zero businesses decision-makers need up-to-the-minute, reliable information about their emissions, and those across their supply chains. AI technologies has the power to do this, process huge amounts of data, and model the likely outcomes future actions will have on changing those numbers.

How do we bridge the digital transformation and environmental sustainability divide?

David Jensen

The downside is new technologies like AI also cause emissions, a fact today’s study by researchers from Lancaster University and sustainability consultancy Small World Consulting Ltd explores in more detail. The paper estimates that ICT’s share of emissions globally could be between 2.1-3.9%, more than aviation at 2%, and higher than previously thought.

“We know that ICT has an ever growing role in society and brings efficiencies to almost every corner of the global economy. But it’s relationship to carbon reduction may not be as straightforward as many people assume. Our work tries to shine a bit more light on that important question,” said Professor Mike Berners-Lee from Small World Consulting.

To counter the threat posed by tech emissions, which the researchers expect will increase due to frontier technologies like AI, IoT, and big data, the study calls for targets to be set that can better manage their use. The researchers suggest actions including the development of a plan to achieve net zero in the ICT industry by 2050; legally binding net zero targets on ICT companies that covers their supply chain emissions; and prioritising some ICT uses above others.

Dr Kelly Widdicks, co-author of the study from Lancaster University, added: “Much more needs to be done by the ICT sector to understand and mitigate its footprint, beyond focusing on a transition to renewables and voluntary carbon reduction targets. We need a comprehensive evidence base of ICT’s environmental impacts as well as mechanisms to ensure the responsible design of technology that is in-line with the Paris Agreement.”

Solutions

The transformative power of AI and other frontier technologies could reduce global emissions by up to 10% by 2030, according to the Boston Consulting Group, exactly the type of impact that can help the world meet key climate targets The problem is the energy used to run these technologies but innovations are showing they can reduce the burden.

One of these is CodeCarbon, which calculates emissions created by AI and gives developers information on coding to reduce it, as well as insight on where to locate infrastructure geographically so it can easily access clean energy sources. Another example is the collaboration between Google and AI-platform electrictyMap, which shows the search engine giant when clean electricity is being supplied to the grid, allowing it to carry out computing processes at the best times.

What is our digital future?

The big question is how do we ensure technology is used for the good of people and planet? Someone dedicated to answering that is David Jensen, coordinator of the UNEP Digital Transformation Task Force at UN Environment Programme, and co-champion of the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES). On the back of the UN Secretary General’s Digital Cooperation roadmap initiative in 2019, which focused on how digital tools can be harnessed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), David’s executive director offered to explore ways digital transformation can be used to accelerate environmental sustainability.

“That conversation eventually led to the creation of this network called CODES,” Jensen told Marc Buckley on the Inside Ideas podcast. “This is meant to be a new part of the Digital Cooperation Roadmap focussing exactly on that question of how we bridge the digital transformation and environmental sustainability divide.”

There is no doubt that tech tools will be invaluable in advancing the SDGs, and to solving many of the world’s toughest challenges. And for Jensen, delivering ‘a digital planet for sustainability’ is a vision that can be realised. For more on the work going on to find positive synergies between tech, people and the planet, catch up with his recent deep dive with Marc on Inside Ideas.

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