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How AI's full power can stimulate climate change action

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Climate change action is the need of the hour. AI can help! Image: via REUTERS

Charlotte Degot
Managing Director, Partner and Global Leader, CO2 AI, Boston Consulting Group
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SDG 13: Climate Action

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

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  • AI has the potential to become the ‘Swiss Army knife’ in our fight against climate change.
  • AI can measure and reduce emissions at scale for any given institution; enable innovative business models to help climate change action; improve the resilience of societies to climate hazards.
  • It is down to global business leaders to effectively leverage AI’s strengths and utilise them to tackle the most complex challenges obstructing the reduction of emissions at scale.

A few weeks ago, the UN IPCC report, written by hundreds of leading international climate scientists, left no doubt: the human-driven climate crisis is well under way allowing “no time for delay and no room for excuses”, in the words of UN Secretary General António Guterres.

To make matters worse, the report was released during a week when global news coverage was already dominated by various climate catastrophes in previously “safe” locations – e.g., deadly floods in China and Central Europe, raging wildfires in the Mediterranean region, and unprecedented droughts in the US West.

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Recognizing the urgency to act, a fast-growing number of businesses around the world pledged to take science-based climate action. Nevertheless, our analysis of Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) data shows that only 7% of the companies, which comprehensively measure progress against set targets, actually reported emissions reductions.

To accelerate the global fight against climate change, we must deploy all possible solutions to act boldly and fast.

Swiss Army knife in climate change action

Recent advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) have produced groundbreaking technological innovation. It’s now time to embrace this progress and utilise the full power of AI to help accelerate our fight against climate change. In this blog, we will focus on three promising use cases of AI in the field of climate action:

1) Measure and reduce emissions at scale for any given institution;

2) Enable innovative business models to help the climate;

3) Improve resilience of our societies to climate hazards.

Let’s have a look at what this means in simple and tangible terms.

AI can help measure and reduce emissions for any given institution

For a company to master its climate impact, it needs to take three steps: measure the baseline accurately, set targets, and act.

Too often, companies are blocked at the first step. The latest data from the CDP shows that only 31% of companies, which publicly disclose their emissions footprint, measure their impact exhaustively across all relevant categories (e.g., including supply chain emissions). As a result, companies struggle to move forward with meaningful targets and successful action plans.

Innovative AI-based solutions can enable companies to tackle the three steps in the same tool, empowering the full organization to make the best decisions regarding its climate impact. These kinds of comprehensive solutions, such as BCG’s CO2 AI, create a 30% reduction in emissions. AI-based solutions are a clear step-change versus conventional manual approaches, enabling quick, reliable and granular baselining of the full emission footprint with greater accuracy.

Beyond that, powerful AI-based forecasts and simulations empower leaders to take the right choices to reduce emissions at scale and impactfully drive their climate journey. In the case of a large retail company, insights generated by BCG’s CO2 AI increased confidence in the achievability of a net zero target and helped accelerate the timeline to net zero by 10 years.

Another good example for AI-powered decisions that reduce emissions at scale is Google’s partnership with electricityMap. By utilizing electricityMap – an AI-powered platform that shows in real-time how clean electricity is around the world and provides past, current and forecasted carbon footprint data for electricity by country – Google manages to align computing tasks with times of low-carbon electricity supply in the grid and, thus, reduces CO2e emissions from electricity consumption.

Finally, AI-based optimisation of process parameters helps identify untapped potentials to save both greenhouse gas emissions and cost. In the case of a global steel company, 10% of CO2e emissions and 1% of costs could be saved by employing state-of-the-art AI models to streamline carbon-intensive industrial operations.

AI can enable innovative business models to help the climate

Over the past years, global research has made strong progress in the development of innovative carbon abatement technologies, including: i) lower carbon fuels, ii) engineered carbon capture and storage, and iii) agricultural carbon sequestration.

Let’s take a deeper look into agricultural carbon sequestration to illustrate AI’s great potential to help advance this technology and deliver impact at scale.

First, smart AI-based algorithms can help identify the best-suited lands and soils in a very cost-efficient and scalable way, e.g., by learning from existing carbon sequestration action data and analysing vast agricultural, meteorological, and geological databases.

Second, AI can help perform large-scale carbon measurement in the soil at a low cost. Given the previously high cost of this measurement, AI is a major enabler for the financial model behind agricultural carbon sequestration.

Third, AI can be used with satellite imagery, for instance, to ensure that farmers comply with sowing practice changes committed to the people investing in the process and expecting to sell the CO2 certificates later. In total, AI will play an absolutely critical role to scale and deploy carbon sequestration with agriculture around the globe.

AI can improve resilience of our societies to climate hazards

As this summer’s weather catastrophes have proven across geographies, adapting our societies to climate change action is a major challenge. Again, AI can aid by helping manage the wide variety, diversity and volumes of data, and generating life-saving insights to improve resilience.

For instance, Google’s “Hydronet” solution can help identify the most critical vulnerabilities in the case of extreme river floods with unprecedented lead times and accuracy. As such, it is utilised to help improve flood forecasting in India and Bangladesh, covering more than 250 million people at risk.

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Analogously, AI-based solutions can help pro-actively map out crisis mitigation and contingency plans and effectively deploy help when needed. For instance, a BCG GAMMA team used AI to help fight the bush fires in Australia. AI accurately identified the vulnerable areas and reliably assessed the impact of different measures.

AI’s potential to speed up the global climate response is groundbreaking

All in all, AI is a uniquely powerful tool that offers the potential to exponentially speed up the global climate response. It is now in the hands of global business leaders to effectively leverage AI’s strengths and utilise them to tackle the most complex challenges obstructing these companies from reducing emissions at scale.

We at BCG are proud to actively contribute to the development of this new field and are committed to leverage all our strengths and capabilities to help our clients navigate their end-to-end net zero journey in the years to come.

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