Since Chat-GPT burst onto the scene last November, advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology have exploded across industries. According to McKinsey, “artificial intelligence is a machine’s ability to perform the cognitive functions we usually associate with human minds.” The ability of AI to analyze data, respond to complex problems, and assist with research is seemingly unparalleled. As the climate crisis worsens to nearly irreversible levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is important to note what kind of impact AI can have in this area.
According to CBS News, there is a debate now among policy experts on whether AI can effectively help combat climate change or actively contributes to it. While there have been instances of AI being used to help fight wildfires and identify recyclables, AI also leaves a significant carbon footprint. CBS finds that the data centers where language models like Chat-GPT are trained can use up to 700,000 liters of freshwater for their cooling systems and emit nearly 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. The U.S. Department of Energy says that “data centers are one of the most energy-intensive building types, consuming 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building.”
According to The Atlantic, AI contributes to emissions in three ways: the burning carbon to build computer chips, the energy expended on training models, and electricity usage every time the product is used. The total contribution to global emissions from AI and the internet is relatively low at the moment – roughly 4 percent, according to The Atlantic. However, as AI expands, its potential to significantly increase consumption of fossil fuels is likely. Since 2010, global internet traffic has increased 25-fold, and experts believe that AI is likely to have a similar effect on increasing internet usage in the coming years.
While the contribution to carbon emissions AI is responsible for is still being studied, it is also clear that AI can help fight climate change, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Due to the staggering amount of data available on climate change, the UNEP has begun to use AI to analyze complex datasets and inform real time analysis to predict carbon concentration in the atmosphere, monitor glaciers, and measure sea level rise. The UNEP also uses AI to monitor methane emissions by connecting data from public databases to policy makers and scientists. UNEP also partnered with a Swiss air quality technology company, IQAir, to develop the largest AI-powered global air quality tracking network in the world.
According to Politico, AI is also making waves in the climate forecasting sector. Politico reports that a Chinese technology company developed an AI weather model that was 10,000 times faster than conventional models and even more accurate than major European weather forecasting models. The biggest obstacle to AI weather forecasting models, however, is climate change, as AI models rely on historical data to make predictions. As the planet gets warmer every year, there will be less historical data to draw on that will be relevant to the changing climate of today. Nevertheless, Forbes reports that AI climate modeling can be beneficial in predicting the impacts of climate change and refining existing models by processing a significant amount of extra data. A model from the beginning of 2023 even predicted that the planet would cross the critical threshold of warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius sooner than previously estimated, reports CNN.
While these prediction models are grim, many experts believe AI can be used to slow down or reverse these developments. Forbes writes that AI can make energy usage more efficient and sustainable by utilizing smart-grid systems. These systems would be able to analyze data to predict energy demand and reduce waste by allocating resources more efficiently. Scientists can also use AI to better equip carbon capture technologies and better integrate renewable energy like solar and wind into the power grid by predicting weather patterns. AI does not operate in a vacuum, however, and policymakers will need to incorporate AI into their climate change policies if there is to be significant movement on attaining the goals of the Paris Climate Accords and preventing catastrophic climate emergencies.
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