Earth Day 2020: AI and Climate Change

As we celebrate Earth Day in the midst of a pandemic, many turn their minds to the possibility of an “alternative future” for the climate.

 

COVID-19 has shown us what the unthinkable might look like, from the collapse of fossil fuel profits, to clean air and quiet skies. But this hiatus on CO2 emissions is unlikely to last and the long-term impact of the crisis on the climate is far from clear.

AI is one area where efforts to fight COVID-19 may eventually be redirected, helping us to fight climate change as well. We may emerge from this crisis with more tools at our disposal.

But if this is to be the case, technological efforts must be matched by assurances of trustworthy AI and by increased international collaboration. These will be essential if the benefits of AI are to be effectively directed towards the climate crisis. Current technological advances are accompanied by important policy shifts, taking place in light of COVID-19. These will impact on how we can use AI to tackle climate change.

Before the pandemic, AI was already helping to fight climate change as innovative solutions were proposed by the tech sector. AI can fight climate change in a number of ways including:

 

 

Some benefits of AI for the climate are already being felt, but this landscape will be altered by the coronavirus.

Now, efforts in AI are accelerating towards COVID-19 solutions. This acceleration has led to the implementation of new artificially intelligent applications which may be repurposed to directly help in fighting climate change or in coping with its consequences:

Coping with climate change: AI is being used to track infections, to model the outbreak and to diagnose cases. These uses could become essential again in the future as we cope with the effects of climate change, including the possible increase in likelihood of such outbreaks.

Fighting climate change: AI is developing in light of COVID-19 and these developments may also help fight climate change. For example, intelligent drones have been increasingly deployed to monitor the public but could be repurposed to track deforestation or to reduce the carbon footprint of package delivery. AI can also make remote work easier and more efficient, and developments here can allow more people to stay at home, reducing CO2 emissions from travel.

The crisis has led to advances in certain technologies, and these may help. But the lessons learnt on AI during the pandemic should go beyond specific technologies.

This is not only a time for technological advancement but a time in which attitudes towards AI in general are likely to change. If we are to use AI post-pandemic to fight climate change, and implement the strategies described above, trust and international collaboration must be protected and promoted:

Trust: As AI enters our lives in new ways, there is potential for trust to increase or decrease. If the public do not trust COVID-19 tracking apps, uptake may be insufficient, and they will not be successful. But this may impact on trust in AI more broadly. Successful implementation of AI to tackle climate change will require uptake by those working in a range of industries from agriculture to transport. This makes ensuring trust in COVID-19 technologies even more important. The impacts will be long term, depending on how governments implement AI, ensuring safeguards on privacy, accountability and fairness.

International cooperation: COVID-19 and climate change must both be tackled on a global level. International cooperation on AI strategies is therefore advantageous. Climate Change will not affect everybody equally, and some of the hardest hit countries will not be those with the most advanced technology sector. Continued collaboration on AI tools to tackle COVID-19 is also of long-term importance and can facilitate the transfer of efforts to tackling climate change.

COVID-19 will not just shape the technological landscape itself, but attitudes towards technology. We don’t yet know how things will change. But whatever happens, COVID-19 will have a significant impact on post-pandemic uses of AI to tackle climate change.

If trust and international collaboration are promoted, we may emerge ready to use AI to tackle the next crisis and mitigate climate change. This Earth Day, it is worth looking ahead to this possibility and to how the landscape of AI may be steered to facilitate effective action against climate change.