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Climate intelligence

Climate intelligence

Humans aren’t finding climate solutions fast enough. Luckily, machines can help.

We got ourselves into this mess. Is it naive to think AI could get us out? As the volume of global climate and energy data swells, so does the potential for artificial intelligence to manage and analyse that data. If AI can flummox a Grandmaster, could it find solutions to the climate crisis?

Attendees at our Global AI Summit last week heard about several ways in which two major forces of the future – automation and climate change – could be converging. They included…

  • Simulating the impacts of climate change so humanity can adapt in advance. The European Space Agency is building a Digital Twin Earth that uses observational data and AI to predict where and how climate calamity might strike next. It includes a virtual version of the Antarctic ice sheet system, created to explore different melt scenarios and tipping points.
  • Optimising energy, food and transport systems with machine learning to make real-time predictions about supply, demand and waste. As the world weans itself off fossil fuels, the ability to sift rapidly through buckets of weather and energy data will become vital for dealing with the dilemma of intermittency i.e. how to consistently produce renewable energy when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. 
  • Accelerating scientific discovery. In the same way that it proved instrumental to breakthroughs in drug discovery and protein-folding, ML could suggest new materials for batteries and construction, and even whole new machines to power the planet. Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a reactor startup backed by George Soros and Bill Gates, is betting that by simulating millions of reactor designs it can finally produce usable energy from controlled nuclear fusion. 
  • Tracking climate action by extracting and analysing data ​from satellite imagery, sensors, and company documents. A network of over 3,300 Earth-orbiting satellites now collects information on everything from where to find rare earth deposits to whale strandings. Meanwhile many companies are seeking better ways to model sustainability efforts without upsetting shareholders. One interesting suggestion raised last week was the idea of using AI to set internal carbon prices.

The risks

Fickle efficiency. “We can have green algorithms that run on green energy, but if they’re not doing something that’s actually green, it’s a little bit like having a certified fair-trade machine gun,” said David Rolnick, who wrote a study on climate AI. He cited a Mckinsey study which found that automated drilling for oil could reduce the cost of extraction by 3 to 7 per cent per barrel, potentially incentivising more exploration. Which raises a broader question: how to ensure efficiency doesn’t become a licence for further consumption?

Hungry servers. Computing power, like thinking, consumes a lot of calories. A recent research paper from Berkeley suggested that GPT-3, a powerful language model, produced the same amount of CO2 during training as driving 120 cars for a year. But the study’s authors also found that AI footprints vary hugely depending on the algorithm’s design and the energy mix used. Given AI’s potential, it seems worth fixing the mix. 


eco-nomics

Indian aircon
An efficient air conditioner that uses the relatively climate-friendly propane as a refrigerant costs about $530 in India. Not many people can afford them but everyone wants them. So sales of cheaper, less efficient, less climate-friendly models are stronger. Which is a problem because i) Indian city dwellers are now routinely having to cope with temperatures over 40 degrees C and ii) there is no such thing as a genuinely climate-friendly air conditioner anyway because iii) all air conditioning implies a negative feedback loop that drives up energy use and thus fossil fuel use unless the energy is renewable, which in most of India it isn’t. The FT has the story. Nine in ten Indian homes have no air conditioning. A third of India’s food rots in the heat, and Covid means cold storage for vaccines is getting more not less important. The closest thing to zero emission air con is a white-painted roof, but why should Indians settle for that when mechanical air con is seen as a basic necessity in the US?


activism and engagement

Serbian lithium
Huge demonstrations brought much of Belgrade to a standstill on Saturday as Serbians protested against plans for a new Rio Tinto lithium mine near the western Serbian town of Loznica. Novac Djokovic, the tennis star, was there in spirit, noting on Instagram that clean air, water and food are “keys to health”. How does the proposed mine threaten these things? Rio Tinto says it doesn’t, of course, but its planned footprint has expanded from 20 to more than 800 hectares; it’ll tunnel under prime farmland and a local river; it’ll create 57 million tonnes of waste over its life, and could affect the habitats of 145 species of wildlife. The bigger picture is one of soaring German demand for lithium for EVs. The Guardian covered the demo and produced an excellent backgrounder earlier this year. No one said the energy transition was going to be straightforward.


science and tech

American heat
It turns out the summer heatwave that melted roads in British Columbia has a winter cousin. Temperatures across western North America are breaking records for this time of year. Last week in Penticton, 250 miles east of Vancouver, they reached 22.5 degrees C, BC’s highest ever temperature for December. It hasn’t snowed at all in Denver yet. Early snowpack higher up is already melting and ski slopes everywhere are bare. What gives? Clockwise currents round a vast high pressure zone centred roughly on Montana are shovelling warm air into the northwest. Alaska, further north, is weirdly in the grip of record cold. The extent to which all of this can be directly attributed to a weakening polar vortex, a whacky jetstream and climate change more broadly has yet to be determined, but count on it to be high.


policy

German greens
Germany’s new coalition has a strong Green presence but an insufficiently radical green agenda. That’s the assessment of a self-flagellatory study by the German Institute for Economic Research published last Friday that finds the country isn’t aligned with the Paris climate goals. It’s aiming for 80 per cent renewable power by 2030 but needs that to be 95, the study says. It doesn’t envisage a speed limit on the autobahns, but should. But the new coalition has barely got its feet under its desks. Uniquely, it has put climate front and centre by naming Greens to run combined ministries of climate and economy, and environment and agriculture. To reach 80 per cent renewables in nine years would be a significant achievement. As for that speed limit, dream on. This is Germany, and most EVs go faster than the cars they’re replacing, not slower. The AP has the story.

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre
@barneymac

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell


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