AI and climate change – how number-crunching can help save the planet

Filtering through vast amounts of data from satellite imagery, sensors, smart meters and more – AI can help turn the tables.
15 May 2020

Underlying the current ciris, climate change remains a pressing concern. Source: Shutterstock

The current coronavirus pandemic has quickly demanded global attention as policymakers race to find a safe exit strategy. But as we pour our collective efforts into tackling this new threat, we must not forget about other invisible enemies that require our urgent attention.

The climate emergency, for one, is a hugely complex global challenge with long-term implications. And we are pressed on time to come up with ways of reversing the damage done by humanity to the planet. 

According to research, 11 percent of the world’s population is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts such as droughts, floods, and extreme weather events.

We need answers, and fast.

As with other emergencies, technology offers hope that we will be able to get climate change under control if used wisely. Indeed, huge strides have been made in the development of intelligent solutions like artificial intelligence (AI) to tackle all manner of global problems. 

Could we use AI as our secret weapon in the fight against climate change? The answer is yes – indeed, AI and machine learning (ML) toolsets are already being used in this arena. Here’s how…

Getting a clear picture

Understanding how our planet’s oceans, land and atmosphere are changing is key to creating solutions to climate change. For decades, data scientists have been studying various aspects of our planet through aids such as climate models. 

However, the rise of AI means that this analysis can be done a whole lot faster and on a much bigger scale – not to mention with greater accuracy.

Let’s take forests as an example. Often referred to as the ‘lungs’ of the planet, the plants and trees that make up our forests take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the air, effectively filtering our air supply. To truly understand how our activities affect this process, though, we must have a good understanding of the changes taking place within our forests.

Given the expanse of most forests, investigating on foot and relying on manual fieldwork would eat up vast amounts of precious time and resources. That’s why researchers are increasingly relying on the help of AI and satellite imagery not only to establish the health of our forests – but also to strengthen our ability to manage these complex ecosystems and build a more sustainable future for them.

For instance, SilviaTerra’s Basemap is using Microsoft’s cutting-edge AI to transform images into intelligent insight, in turn helping conservationists, governments and landowners alike gather better data on forests.

It collects high-resolution satellite images and combines them with pre-existing field data in order to create detailed maps; these indicate the species, diameter and height of every tree in a forested area – including the amount of carbon stored within.

Through these granular insights, scientists can monitor the ecological health of forests as well as identifying risks and vulnerabilities.

Reducing pollution levels 

It is widely acknowledged that greenhouse gases produced by human activities are largely to blame for causing damage to our planet. So how do we go about bringing down the amount of pollution we release into the atmosphere?

The challenge starts with analyzing emissions within individual cities and then determining how to lower them. The sheer volume of data that is needed – everything from traffic levels to weather patterns – is difficult to imagine. Thankfully, AI can do the number-crunching for us.

Sensors that are spread across cities are able to collect all of this data, which is then digested by advanced AI systems that break it down into valuable insights that can be used by policymakers.

Indeed, through IBM’s Green Horizons initiative, Beijing is already utilizing intelligent technologies to tackle its high levels of pollution. AI is being used to analyze big data and pinpoint trends in order to deliver air quality forecasting. By collecting and assessing all of the insights from sensors located across the city, the AI system used is able to make effective forecasts such as when pollution levels are likely to rise – and how to protect citizens from its harmful effects.

In turn, it is hoped that these insights will also encourage businesses and governments to better work together to reach environmental goals and reduce the presence of harmful particles in the air. According to Pollution Online, the Beijing government was able to achieve a 20 percent reduction in ultra-fine Particulate Matter such as aerosols, smoke and fumes by adopting this method.

As these technologies spread to other cities, the combination of sensors, AI, and human intervention will identify polluters and help to design smarter cities that will safeguard the health of citizens.

Helping consumers help the planet

Closer to home, AI is also helping consumers become more aware of how their decisions impact the environment, and how they can reduce their carbon footprint. After all, even small footprints can leave lasting impressions.

A paper compiled by leading experts from Harvard, MIT, Google and Microsoft, for instance, describes how ML can be used to determine an individual’s carbon footprint from their personal and household data. By extracting information like the flights a person takes, or the grocery items they purchase, advanced algorithms can predict the associated emissions.

AI systems can also combine this data with other information from users’ smartphones – such as their use of ride-sharing apps – to help individuals identify which behaviours result in the highest emissions. Such tools can also advise on how much their carbon footprint would be lowered if they changed these habits. 

Other AI tools are already in use across households; AI-powered smart meters, for example, are now commonly installed in homes to pull in and analyse data from multiple sources, allowing people to track their energy usage and reduce their consumption as needed.

Smart meters save energy by allowing for two-way communication between the power grid and users, giving energy providers a better overall picture of usage. They can also use this information to make real-time adjustments to boost efficiency. 

In the years to come, we will see algorithms increasingly being used in this way to determine when and how best to generate and supply energy.

Artificial intelligence is advancing every year, and as it does, I have no doubt that we will see new solutions developed that will play an important part in creating a ‘greener’ planet. 

The use-cases of AI today already demonstrate the powerful ability of this technology to curb our emissions – in fact, it may be our most powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.

This article was contributed by Nikolas Kairinos, CEO and founder of