AI for good: Google unveils raft of new tech schemes for sustainability

Google's artificial intelligence (AI) technology will recognise oil and gas infrastructure in satellite imagery.

The new initiatives include expansion of Project Green Light to 12 new cities, eco-friendly routing, mode shifting in Google Maps and enhanced electric vehicle (EV) search results.

In an effort to curb energy sector emissions, Google has updated its search features to make it easier for consumers to learn about climate-friendly home heating and cooling options. Moreover, the company has integrated a new update into Google Earth enabling planners to optimise solar designs for new and existing buildings.

Additionally, to combat climate disasters, the technology giant has launched tools such as Flood Hub, Cool Roofs and Wildfire tracking tools to enable governments and communities to prepare for frequent natural disasters.

“Fighting climate change is humanity’s next big moonshot. And as with any moonshot, we’re going to have to answer some big questions to get there,” said Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai at the ‘Sustainable with Google’ launch event in Brussels.

“The biggest question is still ahead: can we leave a healthy planet for future generations? I believe the answer is yes,” he added.

Google aims to reduce one gigatonnes of carbon-equivalent emissions annually by 2030, that is equivalent to the emissions of a major country like Japan. Here, edie summarises the key aspects of the new updates.

Project Green Light

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), to get on track with the net-zero emissions by 2050 scenario, CO2 emissions from the transport sector must fall by more than 3% per year through to 2030.

Project Green Light aims to enhance transportation using AI-enabled traffic lights to improve traffic flow and cut emissions. Pilot projects have resulted in emissions reductions of up to 10% at intersections.

The project is being rolled out across 12 cities, through which more than 30 million car journeys are made each month.  In the UK, Google is currently working with Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) to trial the technology in Manchester.

TfGM’s analysis and reporting manager David Atkin said: “Greater Manchester’s Road network – which includes 2,400 traffic signals and accounts for millions of journeys every week – is complex and managing it is a challenge.

“The pilot provided valuable insights and teams from both Green Light and TfGM brought expertise and ideas to the table to improve journeys by up to 18% and reduce emissions.”

Fuel-efficient routing

The second initiative, fuel-efficient routing, will implement AI to suggest routes that have fewer hills, less traffic, and constant speeds with the same or similar arrival times.

Since launching in October 2021, it’s estimated to have helped prevent more than 2.4 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, the equivalent of taking approximately 500,000 fuel-based cars off the road for a year.

Additionally, the Search feature will soon provide new train route suggestions when looking for flights to help people find other, more sustainable modes of transportation.

Enhanced EV search insights

New insights have also been integrated into the Search feature to simplify shopping for an EV by using price and battery range comparisons as well as features to discover new models.

Google has further updated its Fuel Cost Calculator to electric and fuel-based car results to help drivers understand the cost of charging compared with filling up at the pump. This feature is available now in 21 countries.

Moreover, the new battery range explorer allows drivers to estimate the distance they can travel using a specific model car on a single charge. Drivers can also customise a route to see how many charges are needed along the way based on factors like elevation change and speed limits. These battery range insights will roll out in the US in the coming weeks and in Europe early next year.

Reducing emissions from contrails

The aviation industry accounted for 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2022, having grown faster in recent decades than rail, road or shipping.

Contrails, the thin, white lines left behind aircraft, account for around a third of aviation’s global warming impact.

Google Research teamed up with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy to combine AI and data to predict where contrails will form and how planes can avoid making them, in a bid to mitigate emissions. The trial reduced contrails by 54%.

The company is now expanding the pilot by partnering with EUROCONTROL, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, to provide aircraft with information about how to avoid contrails.

Reducing energy sector emissions

To mitigate energy emissions, Google’s Tapestry has developed AI-powered tools for grid mapping and planning to help governments and utilities efficiently model scenarios including the impact of extreme weather on clean energy sources.

The Search feature has also been updated to provide consumers with energy efficiency information and financial incentives when people search for terms like “heat pumps” or “air conditioning.”

Lastly, a new feature in Google Earth has been introduced to make it easier for planners to determine the best building designs and solar options for urban areas.

Flood Hub and Wildfire tracker

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), extreme weather is “the new norm”. In August alone, eight new billion-dollar weather and climate disasters were confirmed in the US, including Hurricane Idalia, the Hawaii Firestorm, and 21 other severe storms and flooding incidents.

Since 2018, Google Research has been working on developing the Flood Hub platform that uses advanced AI and geospatial analysis to provide real-time flooding information. Earlier this year, Google extended the Hub coverage to 80 countries, providing forecasts up to seven days in advance for 460 million people across Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and South and Central America.

The Hub will now also include US and Canada, covering more than 800 locations by rivers with 12 million inhabitants.

Additionally, to curb wildfires’ impact, Google’s Wildfire tracker uses AI and satellite imagery to map large fires in close to real-time and updates every 15 minutes. The tracker is available on Google Search and Maps in fire-prone parts of the US, Canada, Mexico and Australia, and Google is working to expand coverage.

Google is also partnering with the US Forest Service to help fire authorities train firefighters, plan effective fuel treatments, and battle large-scale fires more safely and effectively while in the field using Machine Learning.

Saving cities from extreme heat

In addition to floods and forest fires, heatwaves have surged worldwide. In a bid to help cities respond to extreme heat, Google is expanding its Tree Canopy tool to more than 2,000 cities globally, enabling them to understand where to plant more trees to reduce heat using AI and aerial imagery.

Similarly, the pilot for the Cool Roofs tool, currently available in four cities, which uses AI and aerial imagery to map out the solar reflectivity of cities and optimise cool roof solution cities, will expand to 11 more cities in the coming weeks, including New York, Nashville and Melbourne.

AI: extensive energy use and fuel extraction risks

While the technology giant has revealed an extensive list of AI-based climate solutions, it bears noting that an increasingly digital world means more data centre use. By some estimates, data centres could be accountable for 3.2% of global annual emissions in 2025 – a similar proportion to aviation – and the proportion could surpass 14% by 2040.

Google, in partnership with several industry giants, has launched a net-zero innovation hub for data centres, aimed at exploring projects to replace diesel generation at data centres and reusing heat.

Additionally, the company has matched 100% of its electricity consumption with renewable energy purchases since 2017; however, to drive down Scope 2 emissions further, and help other energy users do the same, Google is aiming to run on 24/7 carbon-free energy on every grid where it operates by 2030.

In the sustainability space, there are also fears that, in as much as AI can make renewable energy generation and use more efficient, is also being used by energy majors for fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

Google made a new set of commitments on the responsible use of digital technologies in spring 2020, including a commitment to end the development of bespoke AI solutions for the fossil fuel sector that could be used to maximise oil and gas extraction or aid exploration.

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