The ongoing coronavirus crisis has, quite naturally, dominated people’s thinking. Attention from all manner of other issues has quickly shifted towards one sole focus: tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, in the process, we are at risk of overlooking some extremely important, pressing issues. Perhaps the most obvious example is climate change.

We cannot afford to prioritise one crisis over another. Indeed, of all the lessons the pandemic has already taught, two stand out: life is fragile; and we must act in a timely fashion when crises strike, or risk paying the price for delaying our efforts.

The same is as true of climate change as it is of public health emergencies; while its advance has a less obvious impact on our daily lives, it will have devastating effects if we do not act fast.

In recent years, a number of laudable attempts have been made globally to reduce carbon emissions. However, for these to be effective, there is one fundamental instrument that must be readily embraced – artificial intelligence (AI).

Already, AI and machine learning (ML) are being used in meaningful ways to reduce our impact on the environment. Below I will outline just a few examples of how this technology is leading the charge against climate change.

Understanding climate change

 It is hopeless to try and find solutions to a problem if you do not fully understand it or cannot predict how it will evolve.

Climate modelling aims to solve this problem by helping data scientists analyse patterns in the environment and create forecasts of how these patterns will change in the weeks, months, and even years ahead. The field is not new; the practice has been undertaken by data scientists for decades to make predictions about what we can expect in the future.

The introduction of AI into this process, however, has given us much more reliable predictions; it has brought something new to the table in terms of how we make sense of the data captured. Comprehending the sheer volume of data that scientists rely on from our oceans, atmosphere and land is almost unimaginable without the helping hand of AI and ML.

A simple example can demonstrate the advantage of using these powerful technologies. Organisations that have been set up to restore declining wildlife populations, for instance, are leveraging AI toolsets to improve ecosystem models.

These toolsets have given them the ability to gather and process data on animal populations – be it tracking their movements or monitoring specific elements of their natural habitat. The valuable insights gleaned from the patterns within this data offer a clearer idea of how endangered species are faring, and what risks climate change is posing to their wellbeing. In turn, effective solutions can then be implemented to better support their welfare. 

Combatting harmful emissions

The energy industry is no doubt the world’s biggest polluter, and actions towards combatting harmful pollution have been largely directed at this sector. Yet it would take enormous efforts to ensure industry players worldwide abide by emissions caps and pursue ‘greener’ practices. Just consider the amount of oversight it would take to monitor pollution and guarantee compliance.

Again, this is where AI has a vital role to play. We have been watching over power plants for years, yet the arrival of artificial intelligence means that we are now capable of processing swathes of data to boost efficiency and optimise operations.

The energy industry today is run by sensors, which collect information on all aspects of a plant’s operations. The processing capacity of algorithms, meanwhile, allows us to monitor performance and make improvements to the way power plants run.

AI can also seek out those who are flouting rules designed to reduce pollution, as well as offering greater transparency over poor practices. Carbon Tracker, for instance, recently announced a new project which will use satellite imagery to both detect and quantify carbon emissions from large power plants worldwide. It will then make this information available to the public.

With luck, such information will help keep businesses accountable and work to improve global environmental standards.

Helping us look after the environment

On a more individual scale, AI is also helping consumers make more environmentally-conscious decisions on an everyday basis.

Autonomous vehicles that do not rely on fuel, for instance, are helping wean us off polluting forms of transport. As the technology becomes more accessible, this has the potential to make a significant impact – in 2017, more than a quarter (27%) of total EU greenhouse gas emissions came from the transport sector. This just drives home the damage that our daily commute might be causing to the planet.

Other less noticeable AI toolsets, meanwhile, are also transforming our behaviours. Take AI-enabled smart meters: these devices are now installed in homes across the UK, allowing people to track their energy usage and adapt their behaviour to reduce their energy consumption.

Smart meters are also the starting point of a much wider upgrade to national energy infrastructure, which will be powered by ‘smart grids’. In the years to come, we will see algorithms increasingly being used to determine when and how best to generate and supply energy. It will no doubt revolutionise the energy industry and help us all work together to lower our carbon footprint.

For climate action to be efficient, we must utilise the powerful tools at our disposal. The next few years will determine whether we will be able to successfully stop climate change in its tracks – and AI might just be our greatest weapon in this battle.