How can AI be used to accelerate sustainability?

By Sabrina Chiaretti, Consultant

Last week, we were lucky enough to attend IEMA’ s and the Symposium’s events on the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the area of computer science that emphasises the creation of machines that work and react like humans – to deliver sustainable change.

Here are our three key takeaways around the use and benefits of AI for sustainability.

  1. Improved data management

AI is already shaping the way we do business, starting with the use of data analysis software to process large quantities of data in a short period of time. Software is extremely helpful when analysing data on, for example, energy and resource use, water consumption and emissions, as it helps to lower the cost of research, making reports and predictions faster than ever before and creating products and offers tailored to customers’ needs.

To understand the power of AI data processing systems, the Global Fishing Watch, a transparency platform that aims to protect the world’s fisheries, processes over 22 million position messages every day from more than 200,000 ships to detect patterns that signify which vessels are fishing, when and where.

Closer to home, AI systems are already helping to make large unstructured data sets meaningful, for example in issue management and prioritisation, one reason why they are increasingly being employed to perfect businesses’ materiality assessment.

  1. Smart allocation of limited resources

At present, governments provide corporations with access to environmental resources in exchange for compensation. With resources becoming more and more limited, AI systems can help to track resource consumption and compensation for use, ensuring a smarter allocation of scarce natural resources.

An example of the use of AI to improve resource allocation is offered by IBM. The business uses AI to improve weather forecasting and renewable energy predictions, helping utility companies with large renewable installations to better manage their energy load, thus maximising renewable energy production and consumption and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

  1. Improved predictions and management practices

Better forecasting of energy and demand-supply, real-time availability of resource consumption, as well as faster weather and climate predictions, are a few of the benefits that AI systems can deliver. These, in turn, help business make more informed decisions, improving their management practices, thus achieving cost savings and operational efficiencies.

Google uses AI to understand when and why certain processes occur in its data centres. Google’s application of AI has helped to reduce the amount of energy used for cooling data centres by 40%— good for the company’s bottom line, and for the planet.

Similarly, Interserve, which builds and manages facilities such as schools and hospitals, uses real-time data to alert personnel when dangerous, waterborne pathogens such as Legionnaire’s bacteria develop, increasing safety and saving on maintenance costs.

What about the risks?

Despite the many benefits, AI does pose several risks. Those most commonly discussed are autonomous bias and the ethical issues they present, unintended consequences and job loss.


In reality, AI is already part of businesses’ daily operations. To ensure AI systems maintain their potential to deliver vital, sustainable change, there is an ongoing need for companies, governments, institutions and citizens to come together to address the key challenges that AI systems present, and to exploit their full potential.

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