A sustainability conundrum

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 January, 2024 at 10:36 am by Andre Camilleri

Lina Klesper is Legal Assistant at PKF Malta

The recently published Global Risks Report 2024 (GRR) by the World Economic Forum highlights the long-term structural transformations of climate change and the rise of AI that are affecting us already today. It shows that complex solutions for our contemporary challenges are desperately needed.

As the world faces increasing environmental challenges and a growing awareness of the need for sustainable practices is arising, the green economy plays a crucial role in solving the sustainability challenge. Within the green economy, the green workforce can be seen as the very backbone of the green transition. The term “green workforce” generally refers to a group of workers employed in environmentally friendly or sustainable industries, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, environmental conservation, waste management, and sustainable agriculture. As the recognition of the importance of the green workforce is growing, many agree that the upskilling and assembling of the green workforce can only be accelerated. Still, progress seems to be hindered by a plethora of challenges, one of which is permanent technological changes. Rapid advancements in technology may lead to shifts in the skills required for green jobs counting on the human ability to absorb new technologies to adapt and update their skills to keep up with the evolving technological landscape. Closely intertwined with this challenge is the access to training and education. To meet the demands of a rapidly changing industry, workers in the green sector require access to relevant training and education programs. This is not only relevant for workers already in the green workforce but also for displaced and “stranded” human capital of the green transition coming from carbon-intensive industries. Therin lay challenges that can be seen as one example of calling for localized strategies, leveraging investment and regulation to accelerate to growth and quality of the green workforce while also having the ability to tackle unemployment and green labour shortages, which the GRR recognized as serious global risks.

As technology has become a key strategy to combat climate change, it is apparent that AI can be leveraged in many ways to help reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainability for a net-zero future. AI can be used to optimize energy efficiency, renewable energy integration, precision agriculture, supply chain management and to develop climate modelling and predictions.

For the European Union, to solve the equation of “AI+Co2=net zero” and leverage data-driven models, it needs to combine AI technologies with strategic policies and collaborative efforts. The main focus should not only be on how AI can contribute positively to the equation but also how AI-driven solutions do not nullify that equation. AI systems themselves accumulate an immense carbon footprint due to the vast amount of energy required to power the hardware in data centres. Those data centres are said to contribute over 2 per cent of the global carbon emissions with the trend increasing. Hence, designing greener and sustainable AI should be the overarching goal for the EU. Especially the allocation of resources for investment research and development initiatives focusing on green AI applications for climate change mitigation and adaptation is an important driving factor for innovation and breakthrough research. It is equally important to foster cooperation and partnerships between governments, research institutions, industry, and technology companies to accelerate the development and deployment of AI solutions. To ensure that green AI solutions are widely accessible, used ethically and will be beneficial for all, the EU needs to promote data sharing and accessibility and set up regulatory frameworks concerning the ethical use, privacy concerns and transparency of AI-driven solutions. Additional crucial building blocks are capacity building for a skilled workforce, incentives for green technologies as well as public awareness and engagement.

However, when focusing on combating climate change on a regional level, as within the EU, it must not be neglected that climate change is a global crisis, for which advanced solutions cannot be reserved for those who can afford it. In other words, sustainability and green technology cannot be a luxury exclusively for rich, developed countries and individuals. The GRR of 2024 warns that “AI could create a new set of divides between those who are able to access or produce technology resources and intellectual property (IP) and those who cannot.” To avoid such a creation of new winners and losers across advanced and developing economies, it is necessary to acknowledge and tackle the digital gap between high- and low-income countries. It is to truly internalize the mantra from the European Green Deal that echoes to leave no one behind.

To conclude, the solution to this sustainability conundrum requires a smart mix of measures and policies. The challenges of the green workforce and AI solutions to combat climate change show that innovative investments, careful management and cooperation across the borders of the EU are promising to enhance technological and human development that benefits all.

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