How Artificial Intelligence is helping tackle environmental challenges

We can’t manage what we don’t measure, goes the old business adage. This rings true more than ever today as the world faces a triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, pollution, and waste.

More climate data is available than ever before, but how that data is accessed, interpreted and acted on is crucial to managing these crises. One technology that is central to this is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

So, what exactly does AI mean?

“AI refers to systems or machines that perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, and can iteratively improve themselves over time, based on the information they collect,” says David Jensen, coordinator of the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP’s) Digital Transformation sub-programme.

Jensen highlights several areas where AI can play a role in tackling environmental challenges, from designing more energy-efficient buildings to monitoring deforestation to optimizing renewable energy deployment.

“This can be on a large scale – such as satellite monitoring of global emissions, or a more granular scale – such as a smart house automatically turning off lights or heat after a certain time,” he adds.

Informing real-time analysis

UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room (WESR), launched in 2022, is one digital platform that is leveraging AI’s capabilities to analyze complex, multifaceted datasets.

Supported by a consortium of partners, WESR curates, aggregates and visualizes the best available earth observation and sensor data to inform near real-time analysis and future predictions on multiple factors, including CO2 atmospheric concentration, changes in glacier mass and sea level rise.

“WESR is being developed to become a user-friendly, demand-driven platform that leverages data into government offices, classrooms, Mayor’s offices, and boardrooms,” says Jensen. “We need credible, trustworthy and independent data to inform decisions and drive transparency – WESR provides this,” he adds.

“Over time, the goal is for WESR to become like a mission control centre for planet earth, where all of our vital environmental indicators can be seamlessly monitored to drive actions.”

Monitoring methane emissions

One of the UNEP-led initiatives inside the WESR digital ecosystem is the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO), which leverages AI to revolutionize the approach to monitoring and mitigating methane emissions.

The platform operates as a global public database of empirically verified methane emissions. It leverages AI to strategically interconnect this data with action on science, transparency, and policy to inform data-driven decisions.

“IMEO’s technology allows us to collect and integrate diverse methane emissions data streams to establish a global public record of empirically verified methane emissions at an unprecedented level of accuracy and granularity,” Jensen says.

“Reducing the energy sector’s methane emissions is one of the quickest, most feasible, and cost-effective ways to limit the impacts of climate warming, and reliable data-driven action will play a big role in achieving these reductions,” he adds.



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