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AI & Environmental Concerns

December 15, 2023

Professor Cary Coglianese seated at a table, speaking
Cary Coglianese, Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science

In an interview with Environmental Innovations Initiative, Prof. Cary Coglianese discusses how artificial intelligence intersects with climate and environmental regulations. 

In an interview with Molly Flanagan published at the University of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Innovations Initiative, Cary Coglianese, Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science discussed the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on environmental challenges. 

“The usefulness of AI requires a creative spark from real people to identify areas where this technology can be used most effectively and then to design it with care and attentiveness,” said Coglianese, who has written extensively on AI regulation, including specifically on deploying machine learning for a sustainable future.

In the interview, Coglianese and Benjamin C. Lee, Penn professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering and Computer and Information Science, used heir distinct expertise and disciplinary backgrounds to shed light on the impact of AI on environmental challenges.

From Environmental Innovations Initiative:

Artificial intelligence (AI) is now inescapable, a subject discussed around the globe. AI’s growth has been met with both excitement and concern across several industries. Yet AI also has a role to play in the environmental world. The technology has the potential, for example, to solve complex problems in the context of combating global climate change. AI can also expedite technological advances, speed the development of new and more sustainable materials, improve energy efficiency, inform disaster response, and forecast environmental processes like erosion, landslides, and weather patterns.

These advances do not come without risk. AI may contribute to job displacement across several industries, exacerbate resource and energy use, and increase the circulation of misinformation and bias. For these reasons, it is essential that AI is regulated in an ethical and responsible manner to ensure the safety and protection of public interest….

Q: How does AI relate to climate change and environment?

Coglianese: We’re entering an era where we have to optimize our natural resources, such as water, clean air, fertile soil, and precious metals. There are all sorts of resource scarcity and optimization problems where artificial intelligence can really help us.

Another application of AI that I think is vital going forward in dealing with the climate crisis is for electricity grid management. When you have many smaller, distributed sources of electricity production, such as solar panels on people’s roofs, rather than a larger, concentrated source, such as a coal-fired power plant, AI can help manage the complex electric grid. By accurately forecasting supply and demand for energy, AI can offer electricity optimization strategies, which will become more and more important in the overall transition to renewable energy sources.

I could go on with a number of examples where AI prediction forecasting is important for issues such as flood management, storm responses, and reducing global carbon emissions. AI can generate complex forecasts to model future scenarios in real-time. All sorts of climate resilience and adaptation work would benefit from artificial intelligence as well. AI can also be used for complex analysis and progress tracking of pollution prevention or waste reduction goals, such as those related to air quality or corporate carbon footprints.

Coglianese, Director of the Penn Program on Regulation (PPR), is a globally renowned expert on regulatory law, analysis, and management who has produced extensive action-oriented research and scholarship. He has consulted with regulatory organizations around the world, is a founding editor of the peer-reviewed journal Regulation & Governance, and created and continues to serve as the faculty advisor to the PPR’s flagship publication, The Regulatory Review.

PPR is currently running a year-long workshop series, “AI and Climate Change,” exploring the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in enhancing solutions to address climate change, including methods for improving AI’s sustainability and energy efficiency.

Read the full interview at Environmental Innovations Initiative.

Read more of Coglianese’s scholarship on AI regulation.