UK Government Launches £1.5m AI Programme to Tackle Carbon Emissions
08-12-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
With the UK Government’s intention to work towards decarbonisation, a new programme has been launched that will provide £1.5m to fund a new virtual centre of excellence as well as numerous outside AI projects. What challenges does decarbonisation face, what has the government announced, and why could AI be the solution to many challenges faced by mankind?
What challenges does decarbonisation face?
As global weather patterns continue to be more erratic and temperature records continue to be broken, many point their finger towards climate change. While governments around the world have indeed taken action against environmental and climate damage, such as the outlawing of disposable plastics and the introduction of green energy sources, it is clear that the world simply hasn’t done enough.
Of course, there is a flip side to this argument that would say climate change is a natural process that would happen with or without human intervention, and there are even theories that suggest more CO2 could be better for the planet. One piece of evidence for this comes from the fact that the Earth has never been as green as it is today (since recorded human history), and this is due to the increased levels of CO2 encouraging plant growth. Even then, a change in climate that is too sudden doesn’t give the environment nearly enough time to adapt, which could see mass extinction events through collapsing food chains.
But even if the climate situation is dire, proposed plans to combat the increase in temperature are simply impractical as they do not take into account global economies and the capitalist system that drives them. Some say that all fossil fuels should be immediately stopped and everyone should switch to EVs, but that is as ludicrous as saying that everyone should stop all wars and spread love; it simply won’t happen.
So, the first barrier to decarbonisation is that the vast amount of energy produced by mankind comes from fossil fuels, and while green energy sources exist, only fossil fuels can provide a reliable source of energy that can be delivered to the masses anywhere around the world. As such, society will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels for the better part of 50 years unless reliable alternative energy sources can be found.
The second barrier to decarbonisation comes from the challenges of replacing vehicles with EV varieties. While this is perfectly possible for those with money, the vast majority of vehicle owners simply cannot afford the high price tag associated with EVs. Furthermore, switching to EVs doesn’t necessarily reduce the overall amount of CO2 produced, as EVs require electricity, and this will likely be sourced from fossil fuels.
The third barrier decarbonisation faces is that many industrial processes used to manufacture raw materials and fertilisers produce CO2 as a by-product, and there are no viable alternatives to these manufacturing processes. In order for the economy to continue working, these processes must continue until viable alternatives are found. Simply stopping all this activity only does the world more harm through economic instability, war, and violence which would undoubtedly arise.
There are numerous other barriers to decarbonisation, and simply supporting blanket ideals such as “Just Stop Oil” and “No to fossil fuels” is not only ludicrous but arguably immoral. Instead, energy needs to be focused on finding alternative solutions that are economically viable.
Government launches £1.5m AI programme to aid decarbonisation
In recognition of the challenges faced with decarbonisation, the UK government recently announced a new program that will leverage AI to tackle the climate crises and provide £1.5m in funding. The first £500,000 will be used to create a virtual centre of excellence on AI innovation and decarbonisation through to March 2025, while the remaining £1m will be used to fund innovative projects that will leverage AI to help reduce UK carbon emissions. The AI project derives its funding from the larger Net Zero Innovation Portfolio that has been granted £1bn.
While the £1m makes perfect sense for helping launch AI-based projects, the £500K funding for a virtual centre is of particular interest as the term virtual suggests that the space will not be a physical location. If this is the case, it shows that the UK government has recognised the advantages of the digital world and how new organisations and groups can be set up without needing to carry a heavy carbon footprint. For example, the construction of a facility would result in many thousands of tons of CO2 being emitted via concrete, fuel, and electricity, while the use of such a facility would see people commute to the centre, which would incur an additional carbon footprint.
But why a digital centre requires £500,000 in funding is somewhat unusual and could again indicate governments’ wastefulness. With a 3-year plan, that funding would correspond to around £130K each year, and the cost of hosting a website and server is a fraction of this cost. It is unlikely that the centre would be powered by the metaverse, and creating such a centre would require a handful of software tools and easily smashed out over a weekend.
Why could AI be the solution to climate change?
Trying to tell everyone to stop using electricity and switch to green energy will only work if those solutions are cheap and easy. Furthermore, trying to make people feel guilty over their consumption and lifestyle often results in anger and rejection, especially if those preaching are using private jets and live in luxury.
But while AI comes with numerous challenges surrounding privacy and ethical use, it could very well be the answer to future carbon reduction. For example, the predictive capabilities of AI allow energy grids to identify when energy will be needed the most, which can help reduce the amount of energy that goes to waste. Even if country-wide energy disruption can be made 1% more efficient, that is a significant amount of CO2 saved from reducing fossil fuel consumption.
The same applies to smart environmental controls inside buildings. If a building can be actively monitored and intelligently controlled by AI to turn on heating in specific areas, the amount of energy used can be dramatically reduced, thus reducing the overall amount of CO2 generation. Again, such AI systems can even be applied to traffic control systems, and this could reduce the number of idle cars that unnecessarily burn fuel.
There are numerous applications where AI can improve energy efficiency, and while this may not eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels, it could very well be the most economical way to reduce carbon emissions in the short term.