Sustainability is a top priority for organisations across the globe, spurred on by the UN’s announcement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which set out shared targets for countries to collectively work towards achieving better economic, societal and environmental security by 2030.
One of the critical methods now being considered for seeing these aims accomplished is the power of artificial intelligence (AI). In this blog, we’ll look at the pros and cons of AI so you can decide whether it offers a practical solution to help your organisation implement a sustainability strategy.
- The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- Where AI Is Already Being Used to Boost Sustainability Efforts
- AI and Sustainable Development Goals: The Pros
- AI and Sustainable Development Goals: The Cons
- Key Considerations for Incorporating AI Into Your Sustainability Strategy
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Developed by the United Nations, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals have been implemented to unify global efforts to deliver sustainability initiatives across societal, economic and environmental spheres.
The goals are divided into 169 individual targets focusing on making changes to protect the planet, foster a secure economy, and benefit humanity and global communities.
By encouraging a global, collective effort between countries, the aim is to see these goals met by 2030. The 17 SDGs are:
- No poverty
- Zero hunger
- Good health and wellbeing
- Quality education
- Gender equality
- Clean water and sanitation
- Affordable and clean energy
- Decent work and economic growth
- Industry, innovation and infrastructure
- Reduced inequalities
- Sustainable cities and communities
- Responsible consumption and production
- Climate action
- Life below water
- Life on and
- Peace, justice and strong institutions
- Partnerships for the goals
Where AI Is Already Being Used to Boost Sustainability Efforts
Nature’s 2020 study was among the first to fully assess the potential impact of AI in delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, concluding that technology could help get 79% of them over the line.
Additionally, it was calculated that AI could positively enable 93% of the SDGs' environmental targets while reducing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 4% in 2030. This amounts to 2.4 Gt CO2e, equivalent to the predicted 2030 emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined.
While many businesses are still in the early stages of evaluating how they can leverage AI to deliver their sustainability initiatives, several industries are already witnessing the technology’s positive impact.
AI and Sustainable Development Goals: The Pros
With so much large-scale potential in AI, it has been earmarked as a technology that can provide a range of benefits across multiple sectors, industries and territories. AI is now being used across the UK and beyond to make improvements for society, the economy and the environment to secure a more sustainable future.
How AI Can Aid Sustainable Development for Society
Nature’s study shows that AI technology has the potential to improve 82% of the SDG’s societal outcome metrics, including eliminating global poverty, providing quality education, ensuring clean water and sanitation, and developing sustainable cities.
Incorporating AI technology into plans for achieving sustainable development targets can also help us:
Decrease Carbon Emissions
We can reduce our gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels if we use interconnected technologies with demand-response AI, such as electric autonomous vehicles and smart appliances.
In terms of boosting transportation efficiencies, AI is already being used in the following ways:
- Smart traffic lights – to reduce congestion, traffic time and idling
- Smart cooling systems – to reduce energy consumption in data centres
- The design process for aircraft parts – to produce parts that are up to 40% lighter, reducing resultant carbon emissions from air travel
By assisting the development of smart cities, AI can drive the global transition to a zero-carbon economy. It’s equally beneficial in agricultural settings, equipping farmers with predictive analytics to optimise their use of fertilisers and water resources to produce the highest yield and mitigate risk with more accurate weather forecasts.
Organisations across the globe are leveraging the power of AI in their work towards eliminating poverty — the first of the UN’s SDGs.
High levels of poverty are now quicker and easier to detect thanks to AI, which uses pattern recognition algorithms from satellite images to find correlations among poorer territories. This is particularly useful when urgent help is needed to save lives, such as in a natural disaster.
Evaluate Legislation and Its Impacts
The decisions concerning public policy over the next few years will significantly impact how the SDGs are achieved.
By combining data on economic, social and environmental conditions, we'll be able to analyse the efficacy and impacts of new policies across sectors, as well as make predictions about future implications. This data-backed foresight could play a crucial part in the success of the SDGs.
How AI Can Aid Sustainable Development for the Economy
The same study conducted by Nature discovered that AI technologies could potentially assist with the delivery of 70% of the economic outcomes outlined in the SDGs, including:
Improving Economic Efficiencies
AI is already being used in numerous industries to automate tasks, maximise process efficiencies, collate data and provide insights into areas that can be improved.
In recent years, businesses in the food industry have adopted AI to help them meet food needs, with this technology increasing agricultural productivity by up to 70%.
Additionally, AI, such as Akkio’s forecasting tools, enables food businesses from agriculture to manufacturing to plan and adapt to meet food demand more efficiently.
A study by the World Economic Forum demonstrated that robots equipped with AI could offset labour shortages in various sectors, including construction and agriculture, allowing humans to work in more complex and creative roles.
As a result, the WEF estimates that the widespread adoption of AI will create 97 million new jobs across 26 countries by 2025.
How AI can aid sustainable development for the environment
By leveraging the data and insights generated with AI technology, governments, businesses and organisations can work towards their environmental targets more efficiently and at a lower cost.
According to Nature, AI could help us achieve 93% of the UN’s environmental SDGs, including:
Preserving the Environment
AI has great potential in this area. The technology could be used to analyse and regulate invasive species in territories such as New Zealand, which currently spends millions of dollars every year tackling this issue.
One of the biggest challenges in environmental preservation is there simply aren’t enough people to monitor all of our natural resources and protect them against illegal activity, such as illegal fishing or illegal logging. Applying AI to these areas and delivering tools, data and surveillance capabilities to global authorities will enable them to enforce laws against these activities more effectively.
Understanding Climate Change
With the ability to track changes in atmospheric conditions over time, AI can be used to build models of different climate scenarios. Researchers can then use these detailed models to generate more accurate predictions and foresight into extreme weather conditions and other climate impacts.
AI and Sustainable Development Goals: The Cons
While AI offers various benefits when hitting sustainability targets, the concerns voiced worldwide aren't unfounded.
Nature’s research found that 35% of the SDGs could be negatively impacted due to AI technology due to challenges such as energy footprint and bias, as well as its potential to exacerbate income inequality.
Therefore, policymakers and industry leaders must consider how and where AI will be used when working towards the SDGs.
Key Considerations for Incorporating AI Into Your Sustainable Development Strategy
Unfortunately, AI and deep learning can have a high carbon footprint due to the intense computational resources it requires. With the UN’s goals calling for clean, affordable energy and climate action, on paper, traditional AI model training might be incompatible with achieving the SDGs.
However, with advancements in AI technology regularly being made, AI’s carbon footprint is gradually reducing. As technology improves, AI models can be trained faster and more efficiently than ever.
As we continue to make advancements in AI technology, the amount of data we can collect also continues to grow.
While this may support more accurate and comprehensive AI analysis, businesses risk compromising privacy even further, with digital footprints tracked, stored and used for purposes that ultimately may not serve the individuals whose data they have access.
When looking at how AI can affect regions where ethical scrutiny, transparency and democratic control are lacking, this is a crucial consideration to keep in mind.
Work is already being carried out on AI software that exhibits inherent biases and makes wrong decisions, such as Amazon’s sexist recruiting algorithm or Google’s racist facial recognition algorithm, hoping improvements can be made to eliminate this bias.
It’s important to remember that AI is just one piece of the puzzle regarding your business’ overall sustainability strategy. This technology can remove the burden of repetitive tasks from your human workforce and even help your team solve complex problems.
Still, producing the best and most impactful results requires oversight, practical business knowledge and good decision-making from those who manage it.
Learn More at SUSTx Tech 2023
Hear from industry leaders, learn how you can overcome challenges in your organisation and find out how you can leverage technological change to achieve your sustainability goals at SUSTx Tech.
Join SUSTx to network with 400+ sustainable technology experts and discover the best solutions in advanced technology, AI, Blockchain, cloud computing and software.