AI’s potential for the environment explored in new WEF/PwC study

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23 January, 2018

  • Wide scope for innovation and investment to apply AI to global challenges including climate change; biodiversity; weather and disaster resilience
  • AI unguided poses short and long term risk if not deployed responsibly  

A new study from PwC and the World Economic Forum examines how AI can help transform how society addresses climate change, delivers food and water security, reduces risk from disasters, protects biodiversity and bolsters human well-being.

Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth, published today by PwC and the World Economic Forum examines how AI can be put to work for the planet’s greatest environmental challenges.

The study is the latest in a series of reports from the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth initiative, designed to accelerate progress of the development and use of emerging technology to benefit environmental challenges. 

The report focuses on the use of AI in the context of six critical global challenges: climate change; biodiversity and conservation; healthy oceans; water security; clean air; weather and disaster resilience.

In the six priority action areas, over 80 emerging AI applications for Earth challenges are examined and identified in the study include:

  • Climate change: smart agriculture, nutrition and food systems; optimised energy grids; autonomous and connected electric vehicles; climate and weather modelling
  • Biodiversity and conservation: pollution control; plant species identification; precision monitoring of ecosystems; illegal trade monitoring and response
  • Healthy oceans: robotic fish to fight pollution, real time monitoring of ocean temperature and PH; coral reef mapping; illegal fishing monitoring and response
  • Water security: simulations for drought planning; drones and AI for real time monitoring of river quality: streamflow forecasting; decentralised water grids
  • Clean air: pollution forecasting for transport management and early warning; air pollutant source detection; air pollutant filtration
  • Weather and disaster resilience: improved early warning systems for weather and disaster resilience; automated mitigation of flood risk; real time risk analytics for first responders.

“AI is the electricity of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Today, as tech pioneers and industry execs alike are starting to see the big impact that applying AI can have, our study shows how it can also be  directed to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems,” comments Celine Herweijer, Innovation and Sustainability Leader, PwC UK.

Although AI presents transformative opportunities to address the Earth’s environmental challenges, the report warns that, left unguided it also has the capability to accelerate the environment’s degradation.

As AI technology has evolved, its direct and indirect applications for the environment will need to be better understood in order to harness the full opportunity of AI for the Earth while assessing potential risks and developing approaches to mitigate them.

Risks including performance, security, control, ethics, and socio-economic impact are explored in the report which recommends that to be sure that AI is developed and governed wisely, government and industry leaders must ensure sustainability considerations are integrated into the pressing fields of AI safety, explainability, transparency and governance.

“It’s incumbent on authorities, AI researchers, technology pioneers and AI adopters to encourage deployments that earn trust and maximise positive returns for society and our planet,” comments Celine Herweijer, Innovation and Sustainability Leader, PwC UK.

“Developing approaches to guide “human-friendly” AI is arguably one of the biggest unsolved AI problems today. If we get it right, it could create a sustainability revolution. In practice that means that AI systems’ checks and balances must incorporate the health of the natural environment as a fundamental dimension.”

Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnership, Member of the Executive Committee comments:

“The opportunity for AI to be harnessesd to benefit humankind and its environment is substantial. As we think about the gains, efficiencies and new solutions this creates for nations, business and for everyday life, we must also think about how to maximise gains for society and our environment. It means a collaborative effort between policy makers, business, investors and researchers, which makes this study’s research and recommendations all the more compelling.”


Download the report here.

  1. The “Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth” series is designed to illustrate the potential of Fourth Industrial Revolution innovations and their application to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. It offers insights into the emerging opportunities and risks, and highlights the roles various actors could play to ensure these technologies are harnessed and scaled effectively. The World Economic Forum is supported by Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment and PwC. They are advised by members of the Global Future Council on the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security. The programme is driven out of the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco.
  2. Research by PwC released in 2017 – Sizing the Prize - showed that AI’s potential contribution to the global economy by 2030 would be $15.7trn.
  3. CEOs’ concern about the threat of climate change and environmental damage to growth prospects has now doubled to 31% of CEOs (2017: 15%), in this year’s PwC CEO Survey. More information at
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