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Navigating the intersection of AI and sustainability

At Cop28 Ahmed Ameen Ashour, the chief sustainability commercial officer for Microsoft Middle East and Africa, explained the data challenge of net zero.

By Spotlight

To achieve global net zero emissions, we need to transform our systems completely: from building more energy efficient structures, to powering electric vehicles and using greener fuel and energy sources. Reducing carbon emissions transfers requires action from all sectors, and it will have to happen fast.

This is where new technologies are promising to be a game changer. Recent leaps in advancing Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have the potential to help us take stock and course correct faster than ever before, according to Ahmed Ameen Ashour, the chief sustainability commercial officer at Microsoft Middle East and Africa. Ashour participated in a panel discussion at Cop28 in Dubai, moderated by Eleanor Slinger, the regional director of New Statesman Media Group, UAE.

As a first step, organisations can utilise AI to take stock and make use of complex data. As Brad Smith, the vice-chair and president of Microsoft, said: “The world must move faster to reduce carbon emissions. Simply put, you can’t fix what you can’t measure.” AI’s strength lies in analysing complex data sets in short time periods. This is why, at the beginning of the conference, Microsoft announced its partnership with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to create a new AI-powered platform and global climate data hub that will help to measure and analyse global progress on emissions reduction. The AI platform and global climate data hub will radically simplify the process used to validate and assess the climate data submitted by the 196 countries that adopted the Paris Agreement, according to Ashour. 

In addition to establishing benchmarks and measuring progress, AI has myriad practical use cases that can accelerate sustainability initiatives by helping to integrate new sources of renewable energy onto the grid, optimise energy and water consumption, anticipate weather events, speed up the discovery of low-carbon building materials, and more.  

These are not fictional scenarios. Ashour pointed to promising examples across the Middle East region and beyond. For example, “Hudhud” an Arabic AI farmer virtual assistant app launched by the Egyptian government and powered by Microsoft’s AI technologies, is facilitating real-time guidance and data on agricultural best practices to more than 50 million farmers, covering 70 per cent of farming land across the country. Etihad Airways in the UAE is working closely with Microsoft to use advanced analytics and AI to measure and benchmark Etihad’s environmental footprint to implement carbon efficiency savings across its business operations. Emirates NBD has implemented the Microsoft Sustainability Manager to drive digital transformation in its sustainability operations. Microsoft’s AI solutions also helped the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and BEEAH Group build two of the smartest and most sustainable buildings in the region, setting a new benchmark for future workspaces.

Overall, Ashour is optimistic about the potential AI holds, though it is no silver bullet. In addition, he pointed out that to reap full benefits of new technology, we will have to significantly expand the digital skills of our workforce. 

Based on Microsoft’s most recent Work Trend Index, around 82 per cent of leaders anticipate that their employees will need new skills, such as prompt engineering, in the AI era. Employee learning isn’t keeping up with the pace of work and the ability to work iteratively with AI will be a key skill for every employee. Already, Microsoft’s research suggests that 60 per cent of people say they don’t currently have the right capabilities to get their work done using new technologies. 

Microsoft is actively working on skilling the future workforce in AI through its AI Skills Initiative. Its components include free coursework with LinkedIn which allows learners to earn a Professional Certificate on Generative AI, a global grant challenge to encourage the creation of innovative AI training, events, learning resources, and dedicated learning tool kits for teachers.

In the UAE Microsoft has also embarked on tailored initiatives to support customers as they become familiar with the use of AI tools in their everyday work. For example, Emirates Group and Microsoft have joined forces to train, mentor and transform high-potential UAE nationals to become future leaders. Similarly, Etihad Airways has teamed up with Microsoft for the first ever in-house AI Academy in the region. 

In conclusion, Ashour remarked that solid data, AI technology and increased digital literacy will be essential to equip us to lower carbon emissions and help speed up the transition to net zero.  

To find out how Microsoft Sustainability Manager can benefit your organisation click here.

[See also: Pierre Friedlingstein: There are no “magical climate solutions”]

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