What’s more important: AI or sustainability?

Oct 10, 2023

Having attended the Banking Transformation Summit at the Excel Centre in London, earlier this year, it is clear there are two things on every business leader’s mind: AI and sustainability, and more so how to marry the two of these which continues to present key challenges.

AI And Sustainability

While artificial intelligence (AI) has the power to fuel incredible innovation that has the potential to lead to more sustainable and quicker decision-making, product development, customer services and risk management, the stark reality is that it also poses a real threat to our planet in ways we are very clearly aware of and ways we have yet to identify. 

The scope of AI is mammoth – it has been estimated that training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five petrol cars over their lifetime. The reason AI uses such large amounts of electricity is directly due to the sheer volume of data that has to be processed at tremendous speed. If these operations are powered by energy with high CO2 emissions, ESG targets will not be met. While these findings from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst date back to 2019, the industry is inching towards better understanding the real impact of AI workloads on our environment and how to find a balance between tech like AI and sustainable ESG pressures. 

At the Summit, the question that kept coming up time and again was what’s more important: AI or sustainability and thus, where should our focus lie. In looking at some of the statistics today, I can understand why this has become a pain point for many organizations. McKinsey’s Global AI annual survey published in December of last year noted that AI adoption has more than doubled since 2017, with respondents citing AI adoption in at least one area of the business having grown from 20% in 2017 to 50% at the time of the survey in 2022

Equally, the 2023 Google Cloud Sustainability Survey illustrates that organizations continue to prioritize sustainability across their business. Of the 1,476 top-level executive participants, 96% cited having at least one program in place within their organization that serves to advance sustainability initiatives while 84% of respondents also stated they care more about sustainability now than before. 

Ai For Sustainable Development Goals

We have only touched the tip of the iceberg. IT systems are the core of the supply chain of every department in every organization. The raw material for IT systems is, of course, electricity. The challenge is how to reduce the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions of the electricity supporting these IT systems. While they may be a start, off-setting and carbon credits are not the only answers — the focus must be on phasing out fossil fuelled power to make way for zero and low-carbon generation such as wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear power. To do this, we need to challenge traditional thinking and develop creative solutions that will help us achieve decarbonization.

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