But could digital be part of the solution to climate change, as well as part of the problem?
Ahead of next month’s COP26 climate talks, AFP is examining five ways technology could help limit the impact.
Among the many items on the COP26 agenda, countries are preparing a roadmap to use artificial intelligence (AI) to fight climate change.
AI relies on complex calculations performed by powerful computers that can consume large amounts of energy.
According to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, training a single system of AI algorithms can use nearly five times the emissions produced by a car over its lifetime.
But AI is already helping to make a wide range of industrial processes more energy efficient, simply by performing calculations that humans cannot.
Consulting firm PwC estimates that greater use of AI in four key sectors of the economy, including agriculture and transportation, could reduce global emissions by 4%.
Peter Clutton-Brock, co-founder of the Center for AI and Climate, said artificial intelligence was not “a silver bullet” that could reverse climate change.
âBut there are some really interesting and exciting applications emerging,â he said.
These include the use of AI to analyze data on deforestation and sea ice melt, in order to better predict which areas will be affected next.
Applications and search engines
Skeptics may argue that one person can only have a limited impact, but the eco-conscious have various applications at their disposal to monitor their personal carbon footprint.
Various apps estimate the emissions produced by a car or plane ride, while others allow shoppers to scan items and see information about their environmental friendliness.
Last week, Google announced adjustments to its search tools to show drivers the most fuel-efficient routes and display emissions information for flights.
Search engine Ecosia, meanwhile, is using the profits from its ads to pay for reforestation, with more than 135 million trees planted to date.
Has the shift to remote work during the pandemic been good for the environment? It’s still not clear, say the researchers.
Last year, the huge drop in commuting was hailed as a contributing factor to lower global emissions, as much of the world crouched down.
But connecting online still means employees are consuming energy at home – and in the winter, heating individual homes can be less efficient than a single office for an entire team.
The International Energy Agency has found that if all white-collar workers stayed at home one day a week, global emissions could be cut by 24 million tonnes, roughly the equivalent of London’s emissions in one year.
Workers with long car journeys could certainly reduce their carbon footprint by staying at home, the IEA said.
But he found that drivers with a daily commute of less than six kilometers (3.7 miles) could actually use more energy by staying at home with the heaters on.
For years, there have been fears that the giant, power-hungry data centers on which the Internet depends could become a major contributor to climate change.
But a study published in the journal Science last year suggests those fears did not come true, thanks to unexpected leaps in efficiency.
In 2018, data centers were still consuming only about one percent of the world’s electricity, despite growing demand for data storage.
Part of this is the drive of tech giants to lower their electricity bills.
Google, for example, has used AI to reduce the costs of cooling its data centers by 40%.
The United Nations estimates that cities are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.
And with the forecast of increasingly urban population growth, designing energy efficient cities is a top priority.
The Internet of Things (IoT) – connecting things to sensors that can communicate and make smart decisions – is already being used in urban design.
A pilot project in Amsterdam, for example, used IoT to guide drivers to empty parking spaces, reducing the time spent driving around the city looking for one.