How AI can help (and hurt) climate change

As the world grapples with the climate crisis, the role of artificial intelligence (AI) has become a double-edged sword. While AI offers innovative solutions for environmental management, it also contributes significantly to the problem. 

Here's how AI impacts the climate crisis and what can be done to mitigate its harmful effects.

How does AI contribute to the climate crisis?

Artificial intelligence technologies require substantial computational power, translating to high energy consumption. Data centers that power AI applications consume vast amounts of electricity, which is still generated from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency estimates that energy use from data centers will double in the next two years, potentially consuming as much energy as Japan. 

This substantial energy consumption increases greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating the climate crisis. AI's rapid growth and the escalating demand for data processing mean that its carbon footprint will likely expand unless significant changes are made to how these technologies are powered.

What is the environmental impact of AI data centers?

AI data centers consume large amounts of electricity and require significant water resources for cooling purposes. This water usage exacerbates the environmental burden, particularly in regions already facing water scarcity. 

Moreover, the infrastructure for these data centers often leads to land use changes and habitat disruption, adding to the environmental impact. In regions with strained resources, the added demand from AI data centers can lead to conflicts over water and energy, highlighting the need for more sustainable and equitable solutions.

Can AI help fight climate change?

Despite its environmental footprint, AI also offers tools to combat climate change. AI can analyze vast datasets to improve climate models, optimize energy use in buildings, and even enhance the efficiency of renewable energy sources.

For example, AI-driven systems can predict weather patterns more accurately, helping to optimize renewable energy production. 

According to the World Economic Forum's recent report on emerging technologies, AI applications in smart grids, precision agriculture, and climate predictions are crucial for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing environmental impacts.


This photograph taken in Toulouse, southwestern France, on July 18, 2023 shows a screen displaying the logo of Bard AI, a conversational artificial intelligence software application developed by Google, and ChatGPT.

Additionally, AI can assist in monitoring deforestation and tracking wildlife, aiding conservation efforts. However, these benefits must be weighed against the environmental costs of maintaining AI systems. The challenge lies in harnessing AI's potential for good while minimizing its adverse impacts.

What can be done to mitigate AI's impact on the climate?

According to the World Economic Forum, several strategies can be implemented to mitigate AI's impact on the climate. 

Firstly, improving the energy efficiency of data centers by using advanced cooling technologies and shifting to renewable energy sources is crucial. Secondly, optimizing AI algorithms to require less computational power can significantly reduce their carbon footprint. 

Additionally, promoting transparency in reporting AI's energy usage and environmental impact is essential for accountability and improvement. Collaboration between policymakers, AI developers, and environmental scientists can further ensure that AI development aligns with sustainability goals​

Jim Bellingham, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy, discussed AI's potential in tracking and mitigating climate change. He noted that climate data sets are vast and time-consuming to analyze, but AI can enhance predictions about environmental changes, enabling earlier mitigation efforts.

Bellingham emphasized that while discussions on climate change often focus on physical aspects, these are influenced by a dynamic, living planet. AI can reduce carbon emissions by improving materials for larger windmills, which is essential for transitioning to a net-zero carbon economy. Furthermore, AI, combined with trends like the electrification of transport and smart grids, offers energy-efficient solutions.

AI's ability to integrate satellite data with model predictions helps provide comprehensive environmental insights, reducing unexpected environmental changes. Trust in AI models is crucial, as they inform decisions by highlighting uncertainties and improving observation programs, ensuring accurate climate predictions.