Google’s boss says AI and machine learning will help
AFTER DECADES of incremental steps forward, 2021 will be the most significant year yet for combating climate change. Two recent developments have made this possible.
First, as science tells us that we have a decade to reduce emissions dramatically or face the worst impacts of climate change, many of those impacts have already arrived at our door. From the historic and deadly wildfires in Australia and California, to severe flooding around the world, there is no denying that climate change is already disrupting our daily lives. At the same time, support for climate action has never been stronger—from Generation Z’s solutions-oriented mindset, to political support that increasingly crosses party lines, to Europe’s large-scale ambition to become the first carbon-neutral continent, society is ever more unified against the threat of climate change.
Second, we are seeing promising technologies and policies that will bring carbon-free energy within reach. Not long ago, it was hard to imagine a 24/7 carbon-free electricity supply. At its most basic level, the wind does not always blow and the sun does not shine at night. But new technologies—including better energy storage and the reduction of costs associated with wind and solar power by 70% and 89% respectively over the past ten years—are bringing 24/7 carbon-free energy closer to reality.
Another of those technologies is artificial intelligence (AI). At Google, we are working on ways to apply AI to optimise electricity consumption within our data centres. In collaboration with our sister venture, DeepMind, we have developed solutions that have reduced the amount of energy used to cool our data centres by 30%. This approach could be used by commercial buildings, including airports and shopping malls, to do the same. AI can also be used to make wind power more predictable, which will increase the value, utilisation and adoption of renewable energy.
Meanwhile, sensors on satellites can locate large-scale emitters of carbon dioxide at a very fine-grained level. This could dramatically improve the effectiveness of the Paris climate agreement. Technology is also helping cities reduce their carbon emissions. According to the Global Covenant of Mayors, an international alliance of over 10,000 cities and local governments committed to fighting climate change, less than 20% of cities outside western Europe have the time, resources and data to meet their climate commitments. With platforms like our own Environmental Insights Explorer, cities can use anonymised, aggregated mapping data to estimate the carbon footprint of their buildings and transport, and realise their solar-energy potential—a critical step, as cities continue to contribute over 70% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
同时，卫星上的传感器可以非常精细地定位大规模的二氧化碳排放源。这可以大大提高《巴黎气候协定》的有效性。技术也在帮助城市减少碳排放。根据《全球市长盟约》（由致力于抗击气候变化的一万多个城市和地方政府组成的国际联盟），西欧以外只有不到20%的城市有时间、资源和数据来履行其气候承诺。借助我们自己的环境洞察探索（Environmental Insights Explorer）之类的平台，城市可以使用匿名的汇总地图数据来估算其建筑物和交通的碳足迹，并实现其太阳能潜力——这是至关重要的一步，因为全世界70%以上的温室气体排放仍然源自城市。
Technology is also helping communities adapt to the effects of climate change that are already apparent. As one example, we are able to use satellite data to map wildfires in real time and better predict how they might spread. In India, flood forecasting models use AI to predict when floods will hit and how deep the waters will get, helping save lives. Machine learning is also being applied to “nowcast” rainfall sooner and with more accuracy than conventional forecasting methods, helping people make safer, more informed decisions.
Driven by these promising trends and tools, companies have made bigger sustainability commitments in shorter time frames. At Google, we have eliminated our carbon legacy using high-quality offsets, and set a goal to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy in all our data centres and campuses worldwide by 2030. Our aim is to demonstrate that a 100% carbon-free electrical grid is not just possible but also economically viable. We hope that companies of all sizes will join us in this effort.
In addition to concrete and ambitious company commitments, the world also needs enabling policies and global frameworks to ensure we are working towards the same goals. We know it’s possible: we have seen this kind of collaboration during the pandemic, as the private sector worked with governments to deliver personal protective equipment, medical devices and contact-tracing apps needed to fight the virus. Stronger public-private partnerships will be just as critical in fighting climate change.
Throughout history, every generation has confronted big challenges. Climate change will be our generation’s most profound challenge—and in 2021, the world will take its biggest steps yet to meet it.■