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ID: 217874


Date: 2021-10-12

IBM says AI can help track carbon pollution across vast supply chains

Companies are under increasing pressure to quantify and reduce their footprints. Finding sources of pollution across vast supply chains may be one of the largest barriers to eliminating carbon pollution. For some sources of pollution, like electricity or transportation, it's relatively easy. But for others like agriculture or consumer electronics, tracing and quantifying greenhouse gas emissions can be a time-consuming, laborious process. It generally takes an expert around three to six months —sometimes more—to come up with an estimate for a single product. Typically, researchers have to probe vast supply chains, comb the scientific literature, digest reports, and even interview suppliers. They may have to dive into granular details, estimating the footprint of everything from gypsum in drywall to tin solder on circuit boards. Massive databases of reference values offer crude shortcuts, but they can also introduce uncertainty in the estimate because they dont capture the idiosyncrasies of many companies supply chains. Enter IBM, which has placed a massive bet on offering artificial intelligence services to businesses. Some services, like the company's Watson health care effort, didnt live up to the promise. But IBM has refocused its efforts in recent years, and today it announced a new suite of tools for businesses to tackle two significant challenges posed by climate change: emissions reduction and adaptation. We have known for quite some time that climate change presents very complex and potentially tremendous challenges for businesses, Kommy Weldemariam, a senior technical researcher at IBM Research, told Ars in an email. Were not only facing more extreme weather and climate events that can damage property, disrupt operations, and raise costs, but many companies today are also receiving mounting pressure from consumers and regulators to actively reduce their environmental footprint. For the new service, IBM took a handful of existing tools and tailored them for environmental data. Called the Environmental Intelligence Suite, the service promises to streamline carbon footprint analysis and highlight areas where companies are exposed to severe weather made worse by climate change events, including wildfires, floods, and hurricanes. The carbon footprint analysis portion of the suite may seem more esoteric, but it has the potential to make a more lasting impact. IBM isnt the first to posit that AI could speed up carbon footprint analysis, but it does appear to be the first company to offer the service commercially. The suite uses natural language processing to eliminate some of the manual labor required to gather information from text sources across multiple languages. The service also appears to use data collected from a companys assets—a shipping truck, for example—to train models to provide more accurate company-wide emissions estimates. The carbon footprinting service hews to the GHG Protocol, a widely used carbon accounting standard, and it tracks a range of different emissions sources, including stationary sources like building heating or industrial heat, fugitive sources like methane leaks, and transportation sources like shipping. So far, the suite tracks emissions across two of three key segments of a supply chain, and IBM says it is working to expand its capabilities in the third. The first, known as Scope 1 emissions, covers all pollution the company is directly responsible for. That might include natural gas burned in boilers to heat an office building or diesel used to power a truck fleet. The second, known as Scope 2, covers indirect emissions, which typically include electricity purchased over the grid. In many countries, carbon accounting remains voluntary, but a growing number of governments and shareholders are making it a priority. The European Union Trading System, for example, requires companies to give an accurate picture of their Scope 1 emissions or face fines. As countries grow more ambitious in their net-zero carbon policies, companies will bear increasing responsibility for reporting on the pollution produced by their operations. When that happens, theyll face choices—hire thousands of carbon accountants or lean on software to lighten the load.