OPINION: Four ways AI can help tackle climate change

by Vilas Dhar and Suzanne DiBianca
Tuesday, 6 April 2021 11:04 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: A diner walks past screens showing real time performance from the kitchen at Haidilao's new artificial intelligence hotpot restaurant in Beijing, China, November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee?

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Vilas Dhar is President of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a philanthropy advancing artificial intelligence (AI) and data solutions to create a thriving, equitable and sustainable future for all 

Suzanne DiBianca is Chief Impact Officer at Salesforce and a Trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation

2020 was a transformative year. It brought profound trials, tribulations and losses – but it has also highlighted the power of AI and other technologies to solve today’s most urgent challenges. Big undertakings require groundbreaking technology, and there’s no challenge greater that the world faces than climate change.

In 2015, when the global community rallied around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a set of goals focused on eradicating poverty and hunger, protecting our planet, and fostering peace –it felt aspirational but possible. Then came 2020. Over the past year, COVID-19 has upended and reversed progress across inequality, health, economic prosperity and education. The pandemic has sent global economies into disarray, tightened budgets, halted well laid plans, and uprooted people’s lives.

The SDGs are still achievable. But to reverse the tide of 2020, businesses and governments must embrace extraordinary new tools – including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data science – to expedite our progress. Here are 4 ways that AI can help us move the needle on the urgent crises we face. 

1. Using AI to understand and eliminate poverty. AI is helping leaders better target services, reduce costs, and provide more people with pathways to economic opportunity and security. Through government statistics and public imagery from Google’s Street View, a project in the UK is using AI to detect signs of inequality in four cities, identifying signals such as building disrepair and air pollution. And in Asia, researchers are using AI and machine learning to integrate satellite imagery with household survey data for more granular poverty information. 

2. Harnessing AI to mitigate climate-related disasters. Initiatives like the World Resource Institute's Data Lab and Resource Watch are using the power of data to inform more sustainable decisions and drive greater transparency around today’s most urgent global challenges. For example, Research Watch data dashboards provide accessible, localized, and verified data on threats of wildfires, air pollution and coastal flooding that can help individuals and organizations make data-driven decisions, to ensure safer outcomes.

3. Leveraging data to restore forests and ecosystems. Data is helping leaders address biodiversity loss and climate change, creating change at the scale and pace the planet needs. Salesforce recently built a digital tree tracker that uses the latest technology and data to identify tree restoration projects, facilitate donations and highlight partners to build a reforestation movement across the globe. Similarly, Crowther Labs is scaling their ground restoration work with Restor, an open-data platform that combines ground data from scientists and practitioners around the world with satellite imagery and environmental information to generate sophisticated maps of global ecosystems. 

4. Using AI to strengthen global food systems. Farmers are beginning to use AI to keep their crops healthy and viable, using data to identify harmful weather patterns and plant diseases and understand what will sell – and for how much – at market. The World Economic Forum and the Indian government are partnering to identify high-value use cases for AI in agriculture, which could open the door to strengthen food systems worldwide. By helping farmers increase output and reduce waste, AI is key to helping farmers feed the world’s growing population. 

To scale AI for global impact, the public and private sector will need to align on an ethical and grounded approach. The development of AI and data-based technologies must be rooted in a commitment to the principles of IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access), preventing algorithmic biases, and listening to important perspectives like the Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Working Group  or we risk creating more problems and exacerbating inequality. This means inviting data science and AI out of the corners of scientific research halls and deploying them as part of a modern development toolbox.  

As we approach 2030, we’ll need innovative ideas and to work together in developing these tools for the advancement of humanity. AI can help us rewrite the global development playbook and amplify the best of humanity. Together, we can give rise to an AI-enabled wave that will catalyze aid and resources and address economic resilience and climate change. The hope we celebrated in 2015 requests it, and our shared future demands it.