By: Sonya Noria RIG Intern Researcher

AI has made significant advances in improving environmentally sustainable practices in recent years. The recent improvements in technology have carved an easier pathway to implementing these sustainable activities. To define, sustainable AI is a “movement to foster change in the entire lifecycle of AI products (i.e. idea generation, training, re-tuning, implementation, governance) towards greater ecological integrity and social justice” (Sustainable AI: AI for sustainability and the sustainability of AI). Rather than mainly focusing on the application of AI, Sustainable AI pays closer attention to addressing the sociotechnical system as a whole.

Corporations must begin to contemplate aligning themselves with cloud providers that are dedicated to reducing their carbon emissions and thus decreasing their own. One way this can be done is by outsourcing a company’s AI training and processing to a data center cloud provider, rather than putting resources into internal initiatives to decrease their carbon footprint. For example, “Google’s DeepMind division has developed AI that teaches itself to minimize the use of energy to cool Google’s data centers. As a result, Google reduced its data center energy requirements by 35%. Google’s public cloud offering is called Google Cloud Platform.” Additionally, “Microsoft has committed to be carbon negative by 2030. Microsoft also runs massive public data centers (cloud offerings) under the name Microsoft Azure” (Environmental Sustainability and AI).

recent advances can potentially lead to closer progress in reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development goals as AI technologies “are being developed to monitor pollution levels, reduce energy consumption, and better understand the impact of climate change” (Capgemini). Global institutions and legislation have begun to delve into implementing AI to improve sustainability. Some areas of focus for utilizing AI for environmental protection include distributed energy grids, smart cities, smart agriculture and food, biodiversity monitoring, climate monitoring, and smart disaster mitigation.

Highlighted in the image to the right are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

adopted by the United Nations. AIcan help achieve goal 14 and 15 of the Sustainable Development goals regarding life below water and life on land by using “AI-based technologies to better capture biodiversity. This is achieved through automated procedures using remote sensing data” by utilizing machine learning through training computer algorithms with historical data to formulate new data through similar patterns(IGB).

One organization in particular, UNESCO has begun to collaborate with UNEP, StartUP Inside, and Microsoft to organize a global conference in regards to AI- based improvements to sustainability with the theme of “AI for the Planet” in 2021. They have also conducted monthly discussions called “Tuesday’s Together for the Planet” in which
“Over 2,200 people worldwide from more than 110 countries joined the digital event” (UNESCO).

Conclusions from these events include the need for international collaboration in order to implement AI based innovation. AI-based solutions for environmental preservation should develop and expand with the help of strengthened public-private collaborations. Shelley McKinley, Vice President of Microsoft Technology and Corporate Responsibility, highlighted the private sector’s efforts to combat climate change and address the most serious environmental issues of our time in her keynote address. Microsoft recently announced the introduction of the AI for Earth program, which gives funding for game-changing open-source research. Overall, AI technologies can have a significant positive impact towards the progression of reaching more environmentally sustainable practices. These AI resources can fast-track the pathway to reaching sustainable goals for the future.