How AI can assist industries in environmental protection efforts

While technology for environmental protection isn't a new concept, AI advancements empower businesses to achieve sustainable operations.

Researchers and advocacy organizations have a long history of using algorithms, logic, modeling and similar technologies to understand how past and current conditions impact the environment now and in the future. They also use these technologies to predict how environmental impacts -- from climate change to the resulting increase in global sea levels -- will affect the world. They've used them to study how and to what extent mitigation efforts can improve the environment.

Now, many organizations outside the research and advocacy fields can -- and are -- using AI to help them in their own individual sustainability and environmental protection efforts. For starters, Schneider Electric, a multinational company specializing in digital automation and energy management, is putting its own technology to use in a new flagship building in Grenoble, France. The company is dynamically addressing temperature, optimizing its onsite solar energy supply and managing the facility in the most efficient way possible. Many companies have used such technology for decades, but Schneider has added AI to these systems -- an evolution which makes the Grenoble building, known as IntenCity, one of the greenest in Europe.

"There is so much hype around AI, but this is a very practical example of where we think AI can solve problems," said Manish Kumar, executive vice president of digital energy at Schneider Electric.

How AI helps with enterprise environmental protection efforts

According to the "IBM Global AI Adoption Index 2022" study, 25% of companies are using AI in their business and 44% are working to embed AI into current applications and processes. The same study, which surveyed 7,502 businesses around the world, also found companies are using AI to address some of the key challenges of this era. That includes advancing environmental, social and governance initiatives and reducing their environmental impact. This means that two-thirds of companies already apply or are planning to apply AI to their sustainability-related goals.

"Organizations are using technology to first understand their current state and their environmental impact," said Dan Diasio, global AI consulting leader at professional services firm EY. "That may mean measuring their emissions and their energy consumption and analyzing such measurements to determine their carbon footprint."

Conventional reporting technologies typically handle those calculations. Once organizations have that data in hand, they can then start to derive insights from that data and model how various adjustments to their processes will change their environmental impacts and improve their sustainability. They can also use a suite of AI technologies to model and understand financial, business and other risks associated with their current state and proposed changes. This brings additional critical information to executives as they make decisions on their strategies and programs.

"AI helps with identifying the best optionality; that's where AI is really being used," Diasio said.

Organizations are looking to AI to identify ways to both optimize and reduce their energy use, as Schneider Electric highlights in its management of IntenCity in France. They can also use AI to analyze their facilities and staffing patterns to determine the optimal windows of time to bring people into the office to minimize energy consumption. In addition to such use cases that apply across industries, experts noted multiple industry-specific use cases.

"Airlines are using AI to optimize their fleets' fuel consumption, a move they typically make as a way to reduce costs but one that also improves their environmental records," said Erick Brethenoux, a distinguished vice president analyst with research firm Gartner. "Meanwhile, agricultural companies are using AI to determine how to minimize resources -- namely water, earth and fertilizers -- while maximizing yield, drawing in huge data sets related to weather, soil, seed and plant growth as well as other natural sciences and economic conditions."

AI can even help the environment in more incremental or subtle ways. Organizations are using these systems to determine the optimal locations to place solar and wind farms, for instance. They're also determining where to put electric vehicle charging stations, thereby encouraging the sustainable energy market's growth. In the case of Schneider, it uses its own facility management systems with AI components that can detect and adjust or fix certain problems, such as recalibrating systems. "This is so we can service buildings intelligently without rolling the [emissions-generating service] trucks," Kumar said.

Experts are optimistic about future adoption of AI for sustainability

Enterprise use of AI for environmental reasons is on the upswing, as the IBM survey indicates. Organizations have multiple incentives for pursuing such initiatives, experts said. They are often seeking to cut costs by reducing consumption, limiting waste and optimizing resource usage. They're also deploying AI to help them meet regulatory and compliance demands, as more governments advocate for "safe" AI that is not harmful to the environment and implement regulations for emissions and pollution.

"They're also driven by the growing consumer demand for more sustainable business practices. The cost of losing brand reputation is major," said Brethenoux, who as key initiative leader for Gartner's AI team also manages the firm's AI research agenda.

He believes that some companies are indeed motivated first and foremost by concern for the environment. Whatever their motivations, organizations of all kinds will have more AI coming into their technology tool set as technology vendors embed intelligence into their products. In fact, enterprise customers may not even know that AI is powering some of the applications they're using.

Enterprise users also have an increasing number of available tools that use machine learning, computer vision and other capabilities within the AI family that support specific industries or address specific needs. Boston Consulting Group, for example, developed its SaaS application called CO2 AI for organizations to measure, track and ultimately reduce carbon emissions. With such advances, AI experts said the technology will increasingly enable organizations to reduce their environmental impacts and improve their sustainability efforts.

"AI is already making a difference today, and I expect that AI along with the expansion of data we can collect in this space will be a big game-changer," Diasio said.

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