Environmental intelligence: using AI and data science to save the planet

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Our interaction with the natural environment plays a crucial role in all aspects of society: our health, wealth, safety and future prosperity. Climate breakdown and the transition to a net zero economy means businesses, governments and individuals need access to new information to have a more accurate picture of the future.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the amount of environmental data that is available, with increasing amounts of data coming from satellites. Being able to make sense of it will help tackle some of the biggest challenges facing society today – but how can this be done?

The Joint Centre for Excellence in Environmental Intelligence (JCEEI), a collaboration between the Met Office and the University of Exeter, is using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse vast amounts of environmental data and address the escalating threats of climate and biodiversity change. “The ability to predict the impacts of climate change in local areas will be crucial across a whole range of things, from transport, agriculture, water and energy supplies to health,” says Prof Gavin Shaddick, co-director of the JCEEI.

For instance, hotter summers are predicted – but how will that affect people? This very much depends on their circumstances, what kind of job they have, where they spend their time and what kind of building they live in. “Temperatures are predicted to increase and heatwaves will become more frequent, hotter and longer. We are using data and AI to predict how this will affect different groups of people and this will be used to plan how we can keep people cool, and safe, in periods of extreme heat,” says Shaddick.

Vulnerable groups may be more affected by the climate crisis. Those who live in poorly ventilated buildings may not be able to cool down, for example, as it may not be practical to open windows because of crime, air pollution or noise. “We need to look at issues on an individual level. If things are getting hotter, we need to know which people are exposed to that heat, how vulnerable they will be and how well they can adapt,” he says. “It is crucial that our homes, workplaces and schools will be cool enough in the summer. But unlike some warmer countries, our buildings are largely built to keep us warm in the winter.”

Knowing people’s individual circumstances will allow predictions of the effects of climate change to be more precise, but could changes designed to improve their situation negatively impact other aspects of their lives? For example, would changes to their homes designed to cool them down have other, unexpected, implications? Sabina Leonelli, professor of philosophy and history of science at the University of Exeter, says: “There are some key ethical issues in relation to environmental intelligence,” and that the practical consequences of predictions need to be considered and it can be complicated.

Young Asian woman, pointing at, and learning from, global data displayed on a large computer monitor.
AI can be used to interpret the increasing amount of data available from satellites. Photograph: Laurence Dutton/Getty Images

To do this, experts need to work together. Data and AI have an important role in providing the information needed to plan changes to ensure that people will be cool and safe, but collaboration with experts in environment and health is key. “When environmental and health researchers work together, especially with affected communities, they can learn new approaches, methods and technologies,” says Lora Fleming, director of the European centre for environment and human health (ECEHH) at the University of Exeter Medical School.

Collaborative approaches will benefit everyone. The University of Exeter’s environmental work has long championed the importance of people with different expertise working together in order to get the best outcomes for society. The university took this approach when setting up a working party to look at what changes it could make to address the climate crisis – particularly focusing on reducing its carbon footprint – a project that won the Sustainability award at the Guardian 2020 University awards.

The University of Exeter is ahead of the game on this, but others are starting to listen, too. “The medical community has been very late in caring about and researching climate and health. But in the past few years, thanks to Covid and the climate crisis, more medical and public health people are getting involved,” says Fleming. “People are realising that much of the impacts of climate and other environmental change are caused by human activities.” The message that our health and wellbeing are ultimately entirely dependent on the health of the natural environment is, she says, finally sinking in.

The University of Exeter is a leader in environmental sustainability and climate change. Take a look at courses available to study at the university in this field: greenfutures.exeter.ac.uk/courses

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