Can AI help us achieve environmental sustainability?

Artificial Intelligence is helping humanity in many ways. Will it prove equal to the task of enabling us to reach environmental sustainability as well?

Sustainability: The Next Frontier

Sustainability has become something of a buzzword in recent years. It is truly shocking to realize that humanity only recently came to an understanding of how we are living our lives, and how we are eating. The rate at which we are creating waste and burning through the planet’s resources is frighteningly problematic. There are, of course, many different areas in which humanity needs to work towards sustainability to achieve our overall goal of a sustainable lifestyle.

Some sectors are really getting it right. If those who have not yet adopted sustainability procedures could take a look at the processes used by other industries (such as Patagonia in the garment trade, Seventh Generation in the cleaning products industry, or New Belgium Brewing in the alcohol industry), the world would undoubtedly be a better place.

Background

It starts at home. Our wasteful lifestyles need to change to include less single-use plastics, either less meat or meat that is farmed in a much more sustainable manner than is currently the case, buying clothing that will last, and taking good care of it so that we create less fashion waste (as well as being sure the clothing is made by an environmentally and socially conscious manufacturer).

Businesses need to adopt sustainable practices as well. Grocery stores need to avoid plastic bags and only use paper bags or ask their customers to bring reusable bags when they shop. Transport companies need to take a long hard look at the kind of fuel that they use and ask if it is the best choice for our environment. If we undertake to change our practices at home and in our businesses, the human race will already be a great deal closer to our goal of environmental sustainability and a healthy planet.

Another buzzword that has taken hold over the last few years is Artificial Intelligence. The technology is improving in leaps and bounds even as we speak. Can AI help humanity along the path to environmental sustainability? Let’s find out.

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Defining sustainability

Sustainability, for the human race, means reaching a place where we are able to meet our own needs without compromising the integrity of the planet or compromising the ability of the generations that are to come to meet their needs. This does not just refer to natural resources but also to social and economic resources. To be truly sustainable, the human race must be not just environmentally conscious but also conscious of balancing out the radical socio-economic gaps that exist in our society today. The idea of sustainability, as we mentioned, is relatively new. The movement has roots in many places: the movement for social justice, conservation, environmentalism, and internationalism.

The three pillars of sustainability are the environment, the economy, and society. The environmental pillar, of course, refers to the integrity of the planet’s resources being maintained. Economic sustainability refers to communities worldwide maintaining financial independence and having equal access to economic resources like food, housing, and work. Social sustainability refers to fundamental human rights, which everywhere deserves to have access to. Safety and health are major social concerns, along with protection from discrimination.

Only when all of these pillars are equally balanced can our planet hope for true sustainability. It is a daunting task, but the responsibility for getting started lies with every member of the human race.

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AI and environmental sustainability

The European Commission, the EU’s politically independent executive branch, has come forward with a statement saying that they believe that environmental well-being through the use of AI is a strategic move that we need to be making. The commission believes that AI can help us to take on the most immediate concerns, which include climate change and the degradation of our environment. The United Kingdom’s government has also made statements supporting harnessing AI to make positive changes for the planet. They believe that using AI the right way will assist them in addressing their Four Grand Challenges (four transformative global trends). They have allocated 200 million pounds to funding 1000 new Ph.D. courses within the next five years. The candidates who receive these places will be researching new forms of AI that could assist further with reaching a state of sustainability.

AI projects

The Open Data Institute and Innovate UK have been involved in efforts to increase sustainability. One of these was assisting in the creation of an algorithm that will classify images of illegal animal products, which will assist in bringing down the black market for animal trading.

The Climate Change AI group has recently been involved in running a virtual workshop at the International Conference on Learning Representations, which is one of the top machine learning conferences worldwide. Some of the AI applications that they discussed include energy modeling for optimized infrastructure and urban planning, using bioacoustics, water sensors, soil analysis, and satellite imagery for environmental monitoring and the acceleration of climate science to help stabilize the effects of climate change.

Circular economy

Using AI within a system of circular economy is something that the top researchers think is of vital importance. What does this mean? Firstly, we need to keep already made-up products and materials in use. Researchers plan to use AI, the Internet of Things, and geographic information to close the loop on things like recycled plastics. The aim is to prevent lost resources and further damage to the environment. Secondly, a circular economy hopes to regenerate natural systems by using examples from previous conferences and meetings to structure improved farming plans with the assistance of AI algorithms. Lastly, this economic system would see us utilize Green AI to minimize waste and water pollution. Production processes need to be streamlined, and responsible supply chains need to be created. These will, in turn, accelerate decarbonization and help build resilience to environmental crises.

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Wrap Up

Some of the best and brightest minds in the world are working on reaching sustainability worldwide. Let’s do what we can to help ease the transition to a more mindful way of living and interacting with our planet.

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