Environmental AI could create 38m jobs by 2030

Written by Peter Walker
17/04/19

Harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) in just four sectors to support better management of the environment could yield productivity benefits, higher GDP, reduced carbon emissions and up to 38 million jobs globally.

Microsoft commissioned PwC UK to assess the global economic and environmental gains that the AI era can harness between now and 2030, finding that things like clean distributed energy grids, precision agriculture, sustainable supply chains, environmental monitoring, and enhanced weather and disaster prediction have transformational potential.

The research modelled scenarios for AI’s use across four sectors - agriculture, transport, energy and water - estimating that using environmental applications of AI in these four sectors could contribute up to $5.2 trillion to the global economy in 2030; a 4.4 per cent increase relative to business as usual.

In parallel, the application of AI levers could reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by four per cent in 2030, an amount equivalent to 2.4 gigatonnes of CO2 – equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined.

At the same time as productivity improvements, AI could create 38.2 million net new jobs across the global economy by 2030, offering more technology based skilled occupations as part of this transition.

Celine Herweijer, global innovation and sustainability leader at PwC UK, explained that AI can enable future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature. “The research shows the potential of emerging technology to directly support decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions in the near and long term.”

Regionally, AI shows the greatest potential to reduce greenhouse gases in North America (down 6.1 per cent) and Europe (down 4.9 per cent) and the largest economic gains (GDP) in Europe (up 5.4 per cent) in 2030.

While Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa stand to gain the least in the analysis, their gains could be higher if more digital transformation can be realised through infrastructure investment, enabling them to leap-frog developed countries. They also stand to gain the most from avoiding the worst impacts of climate change through mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, according to the research.

AI applications in energy and transport will have the largest impact on emissions reduction, stated PwC. AI’s benefits to productivity include optimisation of inputs including reduction in energy, automation of manual and routine tasks, lowering energy emissions per unit of GDP of six to eight per cent in 2030, relative to business as usual.

The report also found encouraging signs for AI’s potential to improve health. More accurate and localised early warning systems for air pollution for example, could save an estimated $2.4 billion globally in reduced healthcare costs and health impacts.

Additional environmental benefits can be achieved in water quality, air pollution, deforestation, land degradation, and biodiversity, through greater data, insights, and early warning systems. For example, using satellite data and ground based sensors to monitor forest conditions in real time and at scale, providing early warning system for investigation of illegal deforestation, with the potential to save 32 million hectares of forest by 2030.

However, the report warned that for all the potential that AI for environmental systems have, its application and uses could also exacerbate existing threats or create new risks.

Broader AI risks linked to bias, security and control are all potential risks to the environment. In addition, there are substantial and wide-reaching barriers relating to these sectors that need to be overcome to realise the full potential of AI for environmental applications.

Herweijer concluded: “Technology firms and industry alike will need to champion responsible technology practices, considering social, environmental impact and long term value creation.

“What is clear is that the companies and countries that fare best will be those that embrace the simultaneous changes and reinforcing opportunities of the AI era and the transition to sustainable economies.”