In the fight to save the Environment, AI emerges as the secret weapon

World Environment Day Special
By Anand Parthasarathy
June 5 2023: Management guru Peter Drucker said it succinctly, decades ago: “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it”, an adage that dovetails with a more modern mantra: “Data is the new oil”.
In the global fight to save the planet and arrest the degradation of the environment, there has been a perennial problem:  How to accurately assess the dimension of the challenge – be it global warming, rampant pollution, rising sea levels or exploding waste generation
How to make sense of unstructured data and how to interpret it in meaningful ways has been a central challenge. Now it seems, help is at hand: Artificial Intelligence.
AI as a science has been around for almost fifty years – but it is only in recent  years, even months, that  it has reached the touchy-feely state: Now  – thanks to  what is being called generative AI  and its early avatars like ChatGPT – the rest of us ,not just the boffins, can experience and leverage AI in a myriad ways.
And this has led to some of the most  massive examples of  crowd sourced  study, where  thousands of agencies,  in government, corporate  and civil society spheres  are able to leverage publicly available global data and  use AI tools to  bring up some local learnings.
On June 4, the eve of World Environment Day 2023, the Centre for Science and Environment  released the  8th annual edition of "The State of  India’s Environment in figures”  (e-book,  CSE, Rs 200).  This has become the de facto source of India-centric information for many agencies   and NGOs, working on environment-specific  challenges.  Say the editors:
“The book was born out of the belief that processing data and information is the new way to communicate today. This is critical as today data is overflowing and information is available from so many sources and so fast that sometimes we end up not making any sense of the happenings.”
Harnessing such data, and  processing it with AI tools,  has  seen many environmental issues addressed with new meaning and vigour.
Environment Situation Room
The UN Environment Programme's World Environment Situation Room (WESR), launched in 2022, is one such  digital platform that leverages AI's capabilities to analyze complex, multifaceted datasets. WESR curates, aggregates and visualizes the best available earth observation and sensor data to inform near real-time analysis and future predictions on multiple factors, including CO2 atmospheric concentration, changes in glacier mass and sea level rise. It also acts as a global public database of empirically verified methane emissions. Reducing the energy sector’s methane emissions is one of the quickest, most feasible, and cost-effective ways to limit the impacts of climate warming, says UNEP
Another  global monitoring programme is the GEMS Air Pollution Monitoring platform, the largest global air quality information network in the world.  It aggregates data from over 25,000 air quality monitoring stations in more than 140 countries and leverages AI to offer insights on the impact of real-time air quality on populations and help inform health protection measures
The burgeoning use of cloud computing services has seen the creation of massive  data centres world-wide and  India’s insistence – for sound strategic reasons – that  data created in India should  be physically held in data centres within the country, has created  at least one unintended consequence – the  large use of water for cooling. The glib response is to say: You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. But technologists are already addressing the challenge of achieving a data storage environment with minimal impact on resources like water – not least by using  more efficient, less heat generating microprocessors.  The  AI-centred Aum processor under development at C-DAC could well be a harbinger of such energy efficient practices.
Detecting illegal  tree felling
The Chipko movement which attained global  fame in 1973 for   tree-hugging villagers in a small chunk of what is today Uttarakhand was an exemplar of  people-driven ecological  action.  Today in a tech update of Chipko,   solar powered acoustic sensors attached to trees feed data back wirelessly  to an AI-driven computer model which can recognize the characteristic sound of  illegal tree felling or logging. Spearheaded by a US based NGO – Rainforest Connection – such  sensors are in use in 35 countries where other bio-acoustic sensors  monitor the health of the forest’s   precious flora
While the Silent Valley in Kerala remains a notable example of  conservation, ever since it was formally designated in 1985, with little or no loss due to  human incursions,  it may be timely to consider such  AI driven tools to preserve mainland India’s   largest chunk of tropical rain forest.
Smart buildings reduce carbon footprint
Within Smart City missions, Smart Buildings are a key component where  energy use is kept to a bare minimum through judicious use of resources and 24x7 monitoring of key  use parameters.   In Hong Kong, an app called Neuron from a design firm, Arup  turns smart building data into smarter insights: Using 5G and Internet of Things sensors to gather real-time data from a building’s energy management systems,  It then uses an algorithm to analyze this data and optimize the heating and cooling system, as well as make predictions for the building’s future energy demand.
In India, new buildings to house some top infotech companies  have come up with their own innovative AI-driven solutions to reduce their carbon footprint. A Swarajya article  has highlighted some of these  smart corporate structures  in India.
Agriculture, arguably India’s  most critical  sector of employment, is particularly vulnerable to  climate change.
Today,  many state agricultural universities  have innovated with a variety of  soil sensors, many powered by solar energy to  monitor temperature, humidity, radiation, soil moisture etc,  process them using machine learning algorithms  to boost yield and reduce wasted resources; to regulate sowing , watering and harvesting.  Krishi melas held in many states, evangelise such smart farming practices. ( Swarajya article on smart farming in India here)
From something as elemental as growing food,  to  as  futuristic as designing  new energy -efficient microchips, Artificial Intelligence is already making a tangible difference to  better, more efficient management of  human activity as we  face up to the challenges of global weather patterns.

Illustrations  for this feature can be found here
This feature has appeared in Swarajya