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Can AI Save the Planet?

Envrionmental icons in front of a mountain range
Envrionmental icons in front of a mountain range
Jean-Francois Barsoum IBM Canada

Jean-François Barsoum

Senior Innovation Executive, IBM Canada

Canadian businesses have a role to play in combating climate change and building sustainable policies through the use of innovative AI tools.

While the pandemic has dominated business decisions in 2020, the economic, social, and environmental impacts of climate change continue to be felt across the globe.

As a result, enterprises are looking to technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate climate disaster, while also increasing speed to market, flexibility, and nimbleness to encourage innovation, says Jean-François Barsoum, Senior Innovation Executive at IBM Canada.

“There have been measurable successes through proactive measures using AI and machine learning to help with weather forecasting, renewable energy predictions, and the design of ‘smart cities’ to boost efficiency and optimize the use of available resources,” Barsoum says.

Pandemic effects on climate change

According to a survey conducted by IBM last month, the majority of Canadians believe the pandemic has stalled progress in the fight against climate change, and half of those surveyed say they’re more concerned about the environment heading into 2021 than they were last year, pre-pandemic. 

Barsoum says the largely vacant offices and commercial buildings in many Canadian cities presents an opportunity to make them “smart” for when employees return. In addition to improving energy efficiency through retrofitting and building upgrades, data can be gathered on energy and water consumption in corporate facilities that give AI tools a “surgical approach” to reduce environmental impact, he says.

“It’s very difficult to be able to gather data and understand the environmental impact across all your assets, so AI allows you to automate some of that understanding,” Barsoum says. “For example, if you’re recognizing that something like changing weather patterns impacts supply chain decisions, AI helps you to understand where you’re most at risk.”

Barsoum cites the example of the flooding in Thailand in 2011 that brought hard drive supply chains to their knees, affecting the PC, server, and storage enterprises. Today, AI-enabled analysis would likely flag such a centralized manufacturing region for critical hardware components as a potential risk to the supply chain. IBM owns and operates the Weather Company — and its millions of data points — because weather data is critical to both operations and supply chain management.

The COVID-19 pandemic stalled some of the progress to address climate change, Barsoum says, but “the idea of dealing with both the environment and recovery at the same time is finding broader acceptance as the adjustment to the pandemic becomes less acute.”

Climate action requires AI solutions 

More than 60 percent of Canadians surveyed by IBM believe that governments should be doing more to integrate innovative technologies like AI and quantum computing into their environmental strategies, while over half said that governments and businesses should work together in developing technological innovation to combat climate change. 

“One of the things that comes through loud and clear is that people are willing to adopt technology in order to have a positive impact on their environmental footprint,” Barsoum says. “People understand that there needs to be more technology research to drive sustainability improvements.”

With more than a century of experience partnering with governments and private enterprises to tackle the most pressing global challenges, IBM has also emerged as a leader in AI ethics. For example, IBM announced earlier this year that it was exiting the facial recognition business and encouraged other companies to do so, too.

“As the scientific community tackles the coronavirus itself using AI computing power, this same technology can accelerate sustainable initiatives for businesses to better prepare for the future,” Barsoum says.

IBM infographic maple leaf


of Canadians are willing to adopt technology solutions to help live a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

IBM infographic circular economy


believe the advancement of clean
technologies and AI are important in ensuring economic growth and creating economic opportunities.

IBM infographic bull's eye


of Canadians think governments should do more to integrate technology in their environmental strategies.

Source: IBM Canada technology and environment survey by Morning Consult, Oct 15-17, 2020. The data represent the weighted results of 1,000 responses collected among adults 18 years of age and older, in Canada, stratified by age and gender, and then weighted by age, gender, education, region, and race (where appropriate) in Canada based on most recent national census projections in each country. The data has a margin of error of +/-3% at a 95% confidence level.

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