PwC: AI revolution could slash global emissions by 4%

If the global agriculture, transport, energy and water sectors were to effectively embed artificial intelligence (AI) systems across their operations, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions would fall by 4% by 2030.

PwC: AI revolution could slash global emissions by 4%

AI is a branch of computer science that utilises intelligent machines to work and react like humans

That is the key conclusion of a new study by professional services firm PwC, which examined the environmental and economic benefits which could be reaped by “infusing” AI within the ongoing shift towards a low-carbon economy.

Entitled ‘how AI can enable a sustainable future’ and commissioned by tech giant Microsoft, the research found that by using AI to leverage huge volumes of data and uncover the insights and patterns needed to deliver ultra-efficient operations, products and services, 2.4 gigatonnes of CO2e could be removed from the world’s total annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprint by 2030.

According to PwC, this amount is equivalent to the annual GHG emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined and could be driven by progress in four sectors alone – namely agriculture, transport, energy and water.

Of the 4% global emissions reduction that this figure equates to, PwC found that applications of AI in the energy and transport sectors could drive the largest cuts, standing at up to 2.2% and 1.7% respectively. While the reductions were projected to be smaller in the agriculture and water sectors, the report notes that AI in these sectors could deliver more wide-reaching sustainability benefits, providing more products using fewer resources while also preserving natural habitats and biodiversity.

On a geographical basis, the research found that AI applications have the largest emission-reduction potential in the US, where the technology could slash national annual emissions by 6.1% by 2030. Europe, meanwhile, could harness a continent-wide 5.4% reduction in yearly GHG emissions within the same parameters.

As well as carbon and environmental benefits, the report also reveals the social and economic benefits that could be reaped by “embedding” AI into business models. It claims that the use of AI across the four sectors studied could unlock up to $5.2trn to the global economy through 2030, creating 38.2 million net new jobs globally in the process.

PwC noted in the report that unlocking these benefits would only be possible if AI was integrated as part of “the adoption of a wider complementary technology infrastructure”. In the energy sector, this would involve a sharp uptake in technologies such as distributed generation and storage, smart metres and microgrids, while the transport sector would also have to champion electric vehicles (EVs) and ride-sharing models.

“There is enormous potential for AI to be an important tool in the effort to decouple economic growth from rising carbon emissions,” PwC’s global innovation and sustainability partner Celine Herweijer and Microsoft’s chief environmental officer Lucas Joppa wrote in the report.

“But the solutions we explore are not AI acting on its own; in most cases multiple complementary technologies come together, including robotics, the internet of things (IoT), distributed energy resources, EVs and more. Without new incentives that accelerate a market change towards clean energy—from renewables to EVs—the efficiency gains from AI won’t deliver their full emissions reduction potential for the world.”

Rise of AI

Although the business case for using AI is still in relative infancy, big-name businesses across all sectors have begun to explore how its applications could transform their efficiency processes, generating sizeable cost, energy, waste and carbon savings.

In the technology space, for example, Google is now using algorithms developed through DeepMind – the AI solutions firm owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc – to optimise power generation at its US wind farms and minimise energy consumption at its data centres. The technology has boosted the amount of renewable power generated at three of its wind farms by 20% and reduced energy consumption at its data centres by 40%.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is running a five-year $50m commitment to bring its AI technology to entrepreneurs and start-ups working to deliver innovative solutions for challenges such as biodiversity conservation, climate change, sustainable agriculture and water security.

AI is also beginning to take hold in the utilities sector, with United Utilities having recently rolled out the technology across its estate after it generated energy savings of 22% during a three-month AI trial at its water desalination facilities in Manchester.

Elsewhere, heavy building materials firm Aggregate Industries has also begun using AI platforms in a bid to create up to 4.5MW of demand flexibility, while ferry firm Stena Line and budget airline Norwegian Air have both begun using AI to optimise travel routes for fuel efficiency in recent months. The latter estimates that installing AI software across its entire fleet of 160 aircraft will reduce its carbon emissions by 16,000 tonnes each year.

These moves have led experts to predict that AI will add an extra $13trn to global economic activity by 2030. Indeed, a separate report from PwC recently concluded that 85% of chief executives believe that AI will “dramatically change” their business over the next years. Nearly two-thirds view it as something that will have a larger impact than the internet.

edie explains: AI for sustainable business

Readers keen to find out more about how AI can help businesses achieve radical improvements in areas ranging from energy efficiency to waste management are invited to download edie’s free guide on AI for Sustainable Business. 

Produced in association with Ditto, the eight-page edie explains guide provides an end-to-end overview of the various AI solutions and their uses, helping sustainability and energy managers understand exactly how to make the most out of AI. 

You can download the report by clicking here

Sarah George

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