AI looms large at Cop28 in Dubai

Google, Microsoft and IBM are just a few of many pushing AI solutions to climate problems

A sign promoting AI in Dubai ahead of Cop28. AP
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One of the most consistent topics of the year, artificial intelligence, has continued to be on the tip of every tongue, even at one of the most anticipated climate conferences of the year, Cop28 in Dubai.

“We're really focused on climate and AI,” said Kate Brandt, Google's chief sustainability officer, who also previously served as the first-ever chief sustainability officer for the White House in 2014.

“The big conversation in Dubai is the global stocktake,” she added, referring to global efforts to measure ongoing climate efforts to lower carbon emissions.

“We're not on track and we need to get to that 43 per cent reduction by 2030 … AI can be a major accelerator.”

Ms Brandt cited Google's research initiative on Project Greenlight, announced in October, which teamed up with several cities to use AI to help them improve traffic flow, and in turn, lower emissions.

“Not only is it annoying to sit at a red light, but it's really bad for the environment and really bad for air quality,” she said.

“This is all about AI better understanding the information we already have,” she said, noting that Project Greenlight does not require new sensors or equipment.

With the AI-generated data results, city engineers can potentially better analyse and adjust traffic light sequencing and patterns.

Google is looking for opportunities to assist cities in the Middle East and North Africa with initiatives like Project Greenlight as well as other projects that can use AI to increase sustainability efforts, Ms Brandt said.

AI can mitigate carbon emissions, support adaptation, and enhance climate modelling, to name some possibilities, according to a report by Boston Consulting Group and Google.

Everything we do is centred around the science, says Dr Sultan Al Jaber

Everything we do is centred around the science, says Dr Sultan Al Jaber

“AI's strengths in curating information, enhancing prediction and guiding optimisation can speed progress in these three areas,” the report said.

“While AI is only just starting to be applied to climate challenges, leading-edge organisations and use cases are already achieving real results – and demonstrating the potential of AI for climate change if adopted at scale.”

At the beginning of Cop28, Microsoft announced a partnership with the UN to spearhead the development of a new AI-powered platform and global climate data hub that will eventually measure and analyse global climate progress.

Microsoft also has a prominent presence at the technology hub of Cop28 with various speakers and AI-related themes presented.

Also, in the Cop28 technology hub is IBM, pushing its AI vision combined with climate solutions.

The New York-based tech firm announced a partnership with Nasa that would use AI technology to create a new artificial weather model to understand more about climate change and predict future weather events with greater accuracy.

Just a few days ahead of Cop28, Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence in Abu Dhabi, the world’s first university to have a singular focus on AI, introduced what it described as a pioneering bilingual large language model dedicated to climate intelligence, allowing users to get answers on various climate and sustainability-related topics.

The AI optimism related to climate change and sustainability is not without critics, however.

Some point to the large amounts of energy consumed by AI data centres, and for that matter, the carbon footprint of the overall web which is steadily increasing.

Over at Google, Ms Brandt says those concerns are all being aggressively addressed.

“We've been driving on that for years,” she said, referring to Google's efforts to make the company's data centres run as efficiently as possible.

“The piece of the puzzle is the energy required for the data centres … we want what we call 24 by 7 carbon-free energy, that's carbon-free energy every hour of every day on every grid where we operate, and we're 64 per cent of the way there,” she said, noting the company's goals achieving net-zero emissions across all its operations by 2030.

Meanwhile, the debate over AI's potential positive or negative effect on the environment continues among analysts, environmentalists and futurists.

In October, at the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils annual meeting in Dubai, Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, warned against something he described as 'AI actionism'.

“It might help around the edges,” he said at the time, referring to the ability to use AI to find specific climate solutions. “But the climate is really a collective action problem. We know what to do but we’re not doing it.”

Updated: December 19, 2023, 11:25 AM