While the world’s focus is currently on Covid-19, it is essential that another devastating pandemic – climate change – is not ignored. It still mainly gets paid lip service in South Africa, which has some of the highest carbon
emissions in the world.


President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also heads of the African Union, said during the ANC’s annual January 8 speech that Covid-19 had presented an opportunity for the country and the rest of the continent to adopt pro-environmental policies.

“Our country’s energy security remains a priority. The ANC government will the year ahead focus on building massive new electricity generation and transmission capacity, in the process creating jobs.  This will include diversifying our energy mix to ensure a significant proportion of new generation comes from renewable sources,” he said.

“The easing of regulations for electricity self-generation by firms and municipalities will unlock significant investment and job creation potential. The recently established Presidential Climate Change Commission will support a just transition to a low carbon, climate resilient growth path that will ensure no is left behind.”

While the country is one of the largest polluters, it also lags behind using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to power climate change in all sectors of the economy. According to the Capgemini Research Institute, which recently released a report on “How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Can Power Your Climate Action Strategy”, the time is ripe for AI to be adopted.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, it also highlighted another major collective hazard we face – climate change. Extreme weather events are increasing, lives are being affected and placed in danger, and costs are mounting for governments and industry. Given the urgency of this issue, this report seeks to understand how AI can accelerate our response,” it reads.

AI is essentially a collective term for the capabilities shown by teaching systems that can as humans when it comes to intelligence.
They include machine vision and sensing, natural language processing, predicting and decision making, and acting and automating. But there are applications for AI like speech. Image video processing, intelligent process automation and advanced simulations. Technologies that help these work include big data systems, deep learning, reinforcement learning, and AI acceleration hardware.

The institute analysed over 70 AI-enabled use cases for climate action and identified 10 that had the most impact, because they organisations significant benefits to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, improve energy efficiency and reduce waste. It says there are already cases where decreasing GHG emissions were helping accelerate climate action. These include General Motors which uses machine learning to build a new seatbelt bracket design that is 40% lighter and 20% stronger, with reduced resource wastage during the process.

“Across sectors, AI-enabled use cases have helped organisations reduce GHG emissions by 13% and improve power efficiency by 11% in the last two years. AI use cases have also helped reduce waste and deadweight assets by improving their utilisation by 12%,” the report reads.

“Our modelling estimates that, by 2030, AI-enabled use cases have the potential to help organisations fulfil 11 to 45% of the ‘Economic Emission Intensity’ targets of the Paris Agreement, depending on the scale of AI adoption across sectors.”

But it does warn that AI cannot be a one fits all approach.

“You need to start looking at how to assess existing technologies and adapt those technologies to particular contexts and circumstances, depending on need and applicability.”

For example, Sveaskog, which is Sweden’s largest forest owner and producer of saw logs, pulpwood, and biofuel, uses AI on satellite images of forests to quickly and accurately identify forest areas affected by bark beetles and prevent them from spreading.

Other examples include PepsiCo, which is using big data and advanced analytics in Pep Worx to help identify potential households and avenues of sale, leading to more accurate demand forecasting and lower waste. Wasteless, an Israeli startup, used AI to price perishable products on retail shelves leading to wastage reduction of 39% in a 12-week pilot.

ExxonMobil has teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design and develop deep-sea AI robots to boost their oil seep detection capabilities. The report says oil seep could account for nearly half of the oil released into the ocean every year.

Google’s Deepmind uses machine learning to predict wind patterns at its 700 MW wind farm up to 36 hours in advance leading to closer alignment with the grid. The report says that AI has helped reduce GHG emissions by 13% since 2017.

“AI has been helping organisations around the world as they tackle the impact of climate change on their business operations and achieve their sustainability goals. Nearly half of the organisations (48%) we surveyed have used AI for climate action,” it reads.

“As a result of AI, organizations have also reduced GHG emissions by 12.9%, improved power efficiency by 10.9%, and reduced waste by 11.7% since 2017.”

But the pandemic has had a negative impact on dealing with climate change.

“The Covid-19 crisis has slowed organisations’ progress on climate goals. The… crisis has made people more aware of sustainability issues. It has also led to some positive policy initiatives, especially in Europe,” it says.

“However, in the immediate term, we found that over a third of sustainability executives (37%) said that the Covid-19 crisis has decelerated their climate goals. The deceleration is at the highest in the energy and utilities industry.”

A total of 46% of the respondents said they had put one or more climate initiatives on hold, and this increased to 53% in the automotive sector. And 38% of the respondents have put a hold on capital expenditure for climate initiatives, which increases to 47% in process manufacturing.

The report says although climate action is a strategic priority for most countries, many organisations are struggling to support climate action through AI. Only 13% of the respondents are described as “Climate AI Champions”.

Reasons include that only 42% of the potential AI use cases are being experimented with and more than eight in 10 ten organisations spend less than 5% of climate change investment on AI.

Up until now, the most popular areas of focus are driving carbon-neutral operations to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“…. 84% (of) executives said that they would rather compensate for (or offset) their carbon footprint than deploy technology solutions to reduce their footprint (16%). This points to a less than optimal approach,” the document reads.

“This is because we will continue to see technology becoming cheaper, but carbon credits are likely to get costlier (as current price levels are substantially lower than the price levels deemed consistent with achieving the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement). This approach points to the fact that organisations may not be looking at the issue holistically and with a long-term view.”

The institute warns that the next 10 years are basically our make or break on climate change.

“Organisations across sectors need to take urgent actions to reduce their emissions. While many traditional methods are being implemented, innovation is critical, and we have found that using AI remains largely unexplored.”

To kick-start progress, companies and SOEs need to educate sustainability teams on how AI can make a real difference and why it is critical, focus on building technological foundations, scale cases that have the biggest impact, collaborate with the larger climate ecosystem and align scaling of AI use cases with emissions.

By: Amy Musgrave