How AI Can Help Solve Climate Change

The power of data

  • Scientists say that many types of computing, including Bitcoin mining and AI, are contributing to climate change. 
  • AI is also helping combat climate change by assisting researchers in digesting vast amounts of data. 
  • The use of AI could help mine rare elements for electric vehicles.
Massive icebergs from Jakobshavn Glacier melting in Disko Bay on sunny summer evening, Ilulissat, Greenland.

Paul Souders / Getty Images

Computing contributes to climate change, but artificial intelligence (AI) may soon be able to help. 

Researchers from Arizona State University are using AI to sift through massive amounts of scientific data about the Arctic. NASA’s climate change data repository is expected to have 350 petabytes of data by 2030, the equivalent of about 10 billion single-spaced typewritten pages per day. But most computers can’t make sense of all that information. 

"AI is already helping analyze satellite imagery to understand climate change better. AI will revolutionize how many professionals get work done—more efficient, accurate, timely, and safe," Toby Kraft, CEO of Teren, a company that uses computing to investigate climate change, told Lifewire in an email interview. "As asset owners get better at fortifying infrastructure and properties, they will have better defenses against the impact of climate change."

A Warming World

The scientists from Arizona State University were awarded a $1 million research grant to help scientists learn to use artificial intelligence to address the pending disaster in the Arctic. The computers currently used to analyze the Arctic climate don't have the capacity to secure and interpret data on the needed scale. 

"The problem in the Arctic is so urgent," Wenwen Li, the lead scientist on the project, said in the news release. "We need to resolve it as soon as we possibly can."

AI is already helping analyze satellite imagery to understand climate change better.

But AI is contributing to the problems studied by Li and her colleagues, observers say. Training deep learning models, a crucial part of AI, "takes colossal amounts of energy causing significant emissions of its own, thereby offsetting its positive impact," Dharmesh Mistry, the head of the technology market unit at Capgemini Americas, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Another type of computing, Bitcoin mining, is more comparable to the impacts of extracting and refining crude oil than mining gold, according to a recent analysis by researchers at The University of New Mexico.

The new paper's authors suggest that rather than being akin to 'digital gold,' Bitcoin should instead be compared to much more energy-intensive products such as beef, natural gas, and crude oil. 

"We find no evidence that Bitcoin mining is becoming more sustainable over time," said economics professor Benjamin A. Jones in a news release. "Rather, our results suggest the opposite: Bitcoin mining is becoming dirtier and more damaging to the climate over time. In short, Bitcoin's environmental footprint is moving in the wrong direction."

AI to the Rescue?

While computing power is a climate change factor, AI can also help reduce its impact. Most experts agree that electric vehicles will be key to combating climate change, and a Stanford University team is using AI to decide where to drill for minerals that are essential for making EV batteries, according to their recently published paper

Fakhar Khalid, the chief science officer at the technology company Sensat, said that AI-based simulations, which can run over billions of iterations for different scenarios, provide policymakers with a tool to plan resources more effectively. His company makes digital twins powered by AI, which are digital simulations of real word processes. 

"AI algorithms are super efficient in identifying complex patterns and, eventually, anomalies against those patterns," Khalid said. "If AI can assist us in understanding the complex patterns in nature, then it can also help us identify the climatic anomalies that we are experiencing nowadays."

AI has also been a key component in understanding the patterns of inefficiencies in our industrial processes and identifying and suggesting areas of improvement that can be most impactful, Khalid said. He claims that adopting digital twins powered by AI will improve carbon efficiency. 

"These digital replicas of environments and systems can safely allow us to experiment with future scenarios and their impact on the planet without breaking it," he added.

Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation account for about 27 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor to the country's greenhouse gas emissions, Ding Zhao, a professor in the engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University, told Lifewire via email.

"Intelligent autonomy such as self-driving cars, delivery robots, and drones have the potential to dramatically reduce the emission and fuel consumption and improve efficiency," Zhao added. "The transition from the current transportation system to an AI-empowered transportation or smart city, yet, is nontrivial, requesting trustworthy AI considering safety, privacy, equity and fairness, and cybersecurity."

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