Key takeaways - Is AI good for environmental sustainability?

Explore the debate on AI’s impact on environmental sustainability. Discover insights from experts, key takeaways, and the role of AI in tackling climate change. Watch the full debate and join the BridgeAI community for the latest updates.

Posted on: 25/06/2024

About the debate

In December 2023, the Innovate UK BridgeAI programme hosted a thought-provoking debate-style webinar Is AI Good for Environmental Sustainability? The event brought together four expert speakers and engaged the audience with a ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Don’t Know’ poll.

The rapid adoption of AI raises questions about its environmental impact. While AI addresses many sustainability challenges, it also has significant environmental footprints. Is the trade-off worth it? Our speakers tackled this complex issue head-on.

Debate highlights

The NO camp

Chris Lloyd-Jones (Avanade)
Chris opened with a critical perspective, highlighting the energy-intensive nature of AI technologies like deep learning models and large language models (e.g., ChatGPT). He pointed out that training these models can produce as much carbon as 78 people generate annually. Until AI is powered entirely by renewable energy, it exacerbates climate change.

Dawn Geatches (Innovate UK Business Connect)
Dawn focused on the environmental impact of data centers, essential for AI operations. She discussed their massive resource requirements, including materials like copper and lithium, and the ethical issues surrounding their extraction. She also highlighted the significant water consumption for cooling data centers, noting that 20 to 50 ChatGPT prompts consume 0.5 litres of water.

The YES camp

Joyeeta Das (SamudraOceans)
Joyeeta argued that AI’s potential benefits outweigh its drawbacks. AI is inevitable and should be harnessed for positive change, such as conservation efforts, smart consumption, and reducing household waste and energy use. She emphasised that AI could help reverse the environmental damage caused since the Industrial Revolution.

Dr. María Perez-Ortiz (University College London)
María highlighted AI’s role in integrating renewable resources and improving efficiency, such as in smart buildings and scientific discoveries. She stressed the need for a systems-thinking approach, connecting AI with social and environmental ecosystems to ensure it supports sustainability.

Audience engagement

The audience actively participated, asking questions about AI’s impact on jobs, its future, and the need for better regulation. By the end of the debate, many participants shifted their views from ‘Don’t Know’ to more decisive ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ positions.

The audience were asked: Is AI good for environmental sustainability?

Pre debate answers:

  • 38% – YES
  • 19% – NO
  • 43% – DON’T KNOW

Post debate answers:

  • 46% – YES
  • 31% – NO
  • 23% – DON’T KNOW

The speakers agreed that AI has the potential to significantly aid in addressing climate change, provided we develop robust standards, transparency in data centre operations, and a collective will to follow the UN’s definition of sustainability.

So, can AI help us meet our needs without compromising future generations’ well-being?

The answer lies in our collective actions and the wisdom with which we deploy AI technologies.

Join us in exploring the potential of AI to drive sustainable innovation and be part of the conversation shaping the future of our planet.

Watch the full recording of the debate.

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Dr Dawn Geatches

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Dr Dawn Geatches

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