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Building Environmental Intelligence – How AI can help businesses increase sustainability
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Building Environmental Intelligence – How AI can help businesses increase sustainability

With many countries facing the effects of climate change, environmental sustainability is becoming a business imperative. It is clear that successful economies cannot exist alongside environmental degradation. However, environmental sustainability can have a negative impact on the operating models of companies and could affect business prospects in a highly competitive market.

But, sustainability imperatives will only increase. The rise in purpose-driven customers is evident now. An IBM Institute for Business Value survey of 93% global respondents revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic had changed their view on sustainability. 22% more customers now consider environmental responsibility to be very important when choosing a brand. As the World Economic Forums Global Risk Report 2020 reveals, environmental risks pose increasing risks to supply chains and other operations. Companies must listen to both the facts and the voices of consumers in order develop an environment that is sustainable.

Companies must establish measurable goals in order to be truly sustainable. These goals should be specific and can include key areas that foster biodiversity and conservation. For example, companies could set a goal to reduce water withdrawals year-on-year at their offices. They could source wood-based packaging and paper from sustainably managed forests, while those planning construction projects might opt for third-party sustainability certifications.

Companies should divert non-hazardous refuse from landfills and incineration, and re-use, recycle, compost, and waste-to energy processes. They could also eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging by using fully recyclable and compostable plastic when necessary.

Technology can help in key mitigation areas. Climate change mitigation requires reducing emissions and green energy consumption. It is important that companies start to source renewable energy for a part of their electricity needs. They can set goals over the next five to ten years to increase the proportion of renewable energy in their overall consumption mix. Companies with data centres should consider increasing their average cooling efficiency. This is a measure for maintaining a temperature that allows companies to fully harness the power of processors within a short-term time frame. Companies can reduce their power consumption per unit delivered work by upgrading their servers.


Additionally, businesses can set reduction targets for carbon intensity together with their shippers and carriers. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon emitted per unit energy consumed. This is critical to decarbonisation of the global freight and logistics sector. Many corporates are asking their logistic partners to reduce carbon intensity using renewable fuels instead of oil-based fuels.

Companies should encourage suppliers to set goals for energy, waste management, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. They should encourage suppliers, especially in the most polluting sectors such as transportation and manufacturing, to set reduction goals according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Companies can also leverage emerging technologies to reduce their environmental impacts and deliver better business results. These include Artificial Intelligence and hybrid multicloud to integrate data across their ecosystems and gain faster insights to build more accurate environmental models. These technologies can be used to optimize business processes, reduce resource consumption, and minimize pollution.

An AI-infused intelligent fulfillment platform can do reverse logistics, which improves the process for return sorting and product re-merchandising. This helps to reduce the environmental impact of the returned goods. 40% of online orders are returned by the fashion industry. This is both costly and increases transportation emissions. Retailers such as the US-based Moosejaw have begun to support their customers by using AI to purchase according their exact needs. This greatly reduces return rates.

Companies can also use advanced analytics to optimize their operations and reduce environmental impact. Yara, a Norwegian chemical manufacturer, has launched a global digital farming platform. This platform uses AI, machine-learning, and field data to provide insight for farmers in order to sustainably increase crop yields. Analytics can also be used to incentivize stakeholders to invent by including environmental costs in their costing. For example, imposing a carbon fee. These results show that you can combine AI-powered solutions and quantum computation to create a sustainable, profitable path. Both investors and customers should encourage environmental sustainability as a business priority.

The pandemic highlighted the importance to protect our environment. Ecological degradation is not an option. AI can help develop more sustainable ways forward.

(The author is a representative of IBM. All views expressed are my own.

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