Environmental Sustainability And AI – Forbes

CO2 emission benchmarks

As a senior executive, youre likely aware of the many strategic opportunities and threats posed by AI. According to IDC, spending on AI hardware and software is increasing at a CAGR of 24%. AI-driven projects will rapidly become a substantial percentage of any companys investment in technology.

What you may not be aware of are the environmental impacts of AI. AI can contribute to your company's carbon footprint or if managed well, help reduce the impact your company has on the environment.

The issue of environmental sustainability is becoming a more critical issue to CEOs and boards as the finance world drives this change. Recently, BlackRock's CEO announced that his firm now has a core goal of investing with environmental sustainability in mind. Goldman Sachs has now made "sustainable finance" core to its business.

Additionally, at the Davos World Economic Forum, the International Business Council announced metrics and a framework for reporting on subjects that include environmental sustainability goals. The Big Four accounting groups and many of the worlds largest companies have signed up to account for (among other things) environmental impact.

It's becoming increasingly important to understand your company's environmental impact. As you will see, AI can play an important role. In this article, well explore the environmental impact of AI and how boards should approach oversight of this increasingly important issue.

AI Can Have A Substantial Carbon Footprint

AI-based systems are highly compute-intensive. They must process a great deal of data, expanding the need for servers and dependence on energy to cool data centers. The adoption of AI within a corporation will increase the company's use of energy.

According to one study by the University of Massachusetts, training AI models to do Natural Language Processing (NLP), can produce the carbon dioxide equivalent of 5X the lifetime emissions of the American car, or the equivalent of 300 round-trip flights between San Francisco and New York.

CO2 emission benchmarks

Source: SP Global

This example of CO2 emissions from AI is stunning and disturbing. It is a wake-up call for us all. However, before we put too much emphasis on these results, we need to look at the bigger picture.

This is only one study for a specific type of AI which is not commonly used. More representative training tasks produce relatively tiny amounts of carbon. However, just because the most common methods of AI today aren't significant carbon producers, doesn't mean they might not become serious contributors in the future. At this moment, few studies exist that help a company evaluate the carbon impact of AI.

What this study tells us is that we need to know a great deal more about the carbon footprint of all types of AI. The issue today is that we don't know. We might be producing a little; we might be producing a great deal, but we need to know. It is part of our responsibility to ensure we understand what is happening.

As senior executives, we need to ask for the information that is not being collected at this time by your AI teams. Without data about your AI carbon footprint, you may be creating a surprise reputational risk for the company once information about your carbon footprint becomes public.

Without data about the potential environmental impact of your future AI projects, you cannot fully evaluate your investment in any project. Now more than ever, the impact of AI on CO2 emissions needs to be a key element in your decision-making process.

Interestingly, Canadas Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms has recently released a tool designed to estimate how much carbon is produced in training machine learning models. This particular tool is a small step in the right direction. At this moment, few other tools exist. It will be incumbent upon your AI teams to either use other tools or create their own to address the boards questions about environmental impact.

As environmental sustainability becomes more important, we need a lot more information about the impact our company is having. We need to track and report on what is happening inside our company as it relates to environmental sustainability. AI has the potential to produce significant and impactful carbon emissions. AI also has the potential to offset or reduce those carbon emissions.

AI Can Be Used To Reduce Carbon Footprint

Companies should consider allying themselves with any cloud provider that is committed to reducing their carbon footprint, thereby reducing their own. Instead of focusing on major internal projects to reduce environmental impact, it's possible to shift a company's AI training and processing to a data center cloud provider that can do that for you. For example:

AI can be a net positive contributor to environmental sustainability in many industries. Here are some examples:

As you consider your industry, think about three areas where AI is likely to have an impact on environmental sustainability:

AI uses a great deal of energy, and most companies have no idea how to measure environmental impact. We should drive the discussion around the awareness and measurement of AI's impact on the environment.

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Environmental Sustainability And AI - Forbes

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