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Beyond AI: Prioritizing Sustainability in the Face of Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been hailed as a solution to many of humanity’s problems.

Over the last six months, the amount of posts, podcasts, articles, and talks on AI has increased exponentially.  I get it. AI is revolutionary, it is cool, it is changing things. but the growing focus on AI and how it will disrupt our profession has the potential to distract from pressing issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. These two issues alone pose an existential threat to our planet and our ability to live on it. We have a responsibility to prioritize solutions and methods that address them.  Spoiler alert: we provide that in this article.

The development of AI can often act as a distraction from the fundamental issues of biodiversity loss and climate change.

We have problems that AI isn’t going to solve.  We need to get our priorities straight.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has reported that global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have declined by 68% since 1970. Another study published in the journal Nature states that over one million species are at risk of extinction, with the rate of species extinction hundreds of times higher than in the past. These alarming statistics highlight the urgency of addressing the biodiversity crisis.

At the same time, climate change poses a severe threat to our planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that global temperatures have increased by 1°C above pre-industrial levels. Unless we take action, the earth could warm by 3-4°C by the end of the century, leading to more frequent and intense heatwaves, storms, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. With this year’s El Nino, we could see the first

Forecasters predict that 2024 could be the year humanity surpasses 1.5 degrees Celsius due to the lagged effect of the peak impact of El Nino in December that takes time to spread globally.

The Importance of Prioritizing Sustainability in AI Development

The development of AI continues to receive exponential focus, funding and is clogging up our news feeds. While AI has the potential to improve healthcare, transportation, and various industries’ efficiency, we must not lose focus on sustainability.

Example, self-driving cars are marketed as environmentally friendly and reducing emissions. However, they do not address the root causes of climate change and allow us to continue using fossil fuels for transportation. Similarly, AI can help farmers optimize their crops and increase yields, but it does not address the fundamental issue of monoculture farming, which depletes soil nutrients and reduces biodiversity.

Developing AI requires vast amounts of energy. According to a report by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, training a single large AI model can emit as much carbon dioxide as five cars during their entire lifetime. Moreover, data centers that support AI require vast amounts of electricity, consuming up to 3% of global electricity demand, with that figure expected to triple by 2030.

As we continue to develop AI technology, it is crucial to consider its long-term implications carefully. We must ensure that the energy sources used to power AI are sustainable and do not exacerbate climate change. Additionally, we must focus on developing AI applications that support sustainable practices in various industries, rather than promoting their use as a replacement for sustainable solutions.

Sustainability should be a top priority as we continue to leverage AI technology. We must not allow the exponential growth of AI to distract us from the urgent issues that require immediate attention. As a society, we must acknowledge the interconnectedness of these issues and approach them holistically, considering their long-term impact on future generations.

While AI has the potential to revolutionize various industries, we can’t not forget our obligations to sustainability. We must prioritize the development of sustainable AI solutions that do not contribute to environmental degradation, but instead support the transition towards a sustainable future. It is only by doing so that we can ensure a healthy planet for ourselves and future generations.

What should we do in practice?

At GPM, we addressed responsible technology in the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management 3.0. 

Responsible technology is the practice of taking into account ethical, legal, and social implications when running projects that involve new or emerging technologies. This includes developing and adhering to frameworks and policies related to data privacy, intellectual property rights, environmental impact, diversity, and inclusion. Responsible technology also requires ensuring that technology is used in a safe and responsible manner.

Project Teams should:

  • Guide the development and deployment of technology in the project using guidelines grounded in fairness, transparency, accountability, and social responsibility.
  • Provide appropriate training to project workers on the ethical implications of any work with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ensure that any data sets used to train AI systems are representative and valid for purpose.
  • Develop mechanisms to manage and respond to risks associated with using AI technologies in the project product or services.
  • Develop mechanisms to detect and address potential bias in algorithms or data sources used to generate insights or drive decisions.
  • Use green computing solutions and renewable energy sources whenever possible.

Responsible use of technology helps to achieve the following sustainable project outcomes:

  • Reduced discrimination by making technology accessible to all users.
  • More successful and sustainable products and services that are trusted users.
  • Better decision-making and outcomes.
  • Development and implementation of solutions that help protect biodiversity and regenerate degraded ecosystems.

By taking these action items, we can collectively make progress in combating climate change and biodiversity loss while responsibly integrating AI into a sustainable future.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below. We look forward to hearing from you!

Thank you for your time and input. Together, we can make a difference!

Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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