Rolnick, David, Donti, Priya L., Kaack, Lynn H., Kochanski, Kelly, Lacoste, Alexandre, Sankaran, Kris, Ross, Andrew Slavin, Milojevic-Dupont, Nikola, Jaques, Natasha, Waldman-Brown, Anna, Luccioni, Alexandra, Maharaj, Tegan, Sherwin, Evan D., Mukkavilli, S. Karthik, Kording, Konrad P., Gomes, Carla, Ng, Andrew Y., Hassabis, Demis, Platt, John C., Creutzig, Felix, Chayes, Jennifer, Bengio, Yoshua
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, and we, as machine learning experts, may wonder how we can help. Here we describe how machine learning can be a powerful tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping society adapt to a changing climate. From smart grids to disaster management, we identify high impact problems where existing gaps can be filled by machine learning, in collaboration with other fields. Our recommendations encompass exciting research questions as well as promising business opportunities. We call on the machine learning community to join the global effort against climate change.
Our planet is a mess. The past four years have been the four hottest on record, and July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. Greenland is expected to lose 440 billion tons of ice this year, a rate that was the "worst-case scenario" for 2070. The West is on fire, the middle of the country is flooded, and the Atlantic is seeing hurricanes of increasing frequency and intensity. In Alaska, salmon are dying because of the heat. All the while, the top 5 US oil and gas companies posted revenues over $760 billion (1), and the federal government subsidized the industry to the tune of $26 billion annually (2). Climate change is an existential threat, and we need to recognize that we're already living through the negative effects. The increase in natural disasters is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars, and the total cost of climate change will run into the trillions while taking an untold number of lives. And the people who are most affected by these impacts of climate change are the least able to deal with it – economically disadvantaged and minority communities face a disproportionate burden. The right time to deal with this crisis was decades ago. We've waited too long, so we need to act fast and recognize that all options need to be on the table in order to adapt to the changed world we live in while mitigating behaviors that make it worse and reversing the damage we've already done. We can't dismiss any ideas – especially not those that have support from the scientific community – or rule anything out because it doesn't fit our ideological framework. Why have we so far barely made a dent in what we need to do in order to combat this crisis? When 78% of our fellow Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, it's hard to mobilize people to care about the massive problem of climate change. Many think, "I can't pay my bills. The penguins will have to wait." It's impossible to think about the future if you can't feed your kids today. We need to get the economic boot off of the throats of our fellow Americans so everyone can get their heads up and start facing this threat head-on. We need to bring the full force of America to bear on this problem, or we will fail, and the world will suffer.
Plants that grow in the ground make all their carbon-based infrastructure from carbon dioxide (CO2). By contrast, plants built by chemists use petroleum and natural gas as their carbon feedstock. In a review, De Luna et al. explore the prospective challenges and opportunities for manufacturing commodity chemicals such as ethylene and alcohols by direct electrochemical reduction of CO2. They estimate that production costs would be competitive with fossil technologies if renewable electricity costs drop below 4 cents per kilowatt-hour and electrical-to-chemical conversion efficiencies reach 60%. As the world continues to transition toward carbon emissions–free energy technologies, there remains a need to also reduce the carbon emissions of the chemical production industry. Today many of the world's chemicals are produced from fossil fuel–derived feedstocks. Electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into chemical feedstocks offers a way to turn waste emissions into valuable products, closing the carbon loop. When coupled to renewable sources of electricity, these products can be made with a net negative carbon emissions footprint, helping to sequester CO2 into usable goods. Research and development into electrocatalytic materials for CO2 reduction has intensified in recent years, with advances in selectivity, efficiency, and reaction rate progressing toward practical implementation. A variety of chemical products can be made from CO2, such as alcohols, oxygenates, synthesis gas (syngas), and olefins--staples in the global chemical industry. Because these products are produced at substantial scale, a switch to renewably powered production could result in a substantial carbon emissions reduction impact. The advancement of electrochemical technology to convert electrons generated from renewable power into stable chemical form also represents one avenue to long-term (e.g., seasonal) storage of energy. The science of electrocatalytic CO2 reduction continues to progress, with priority given to the need to pinpoint more accurately the targets for practical application, the economics of chemical products, and barriers to market entry.
Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Despite increasing global consensus about the urgency of reducing emissions since the 1980s, they continue to rise relentlessly. We look to technology to deliver us from climate change, preferably without sacrificing economic growth. Our optimistic--some would say techno-utopian--visions of the future involve vast arrays of solar panels, machines that suck carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, and replacing fossil fuels for transport and heating with electricity generated by renewable means. This is nothing less than rebuilding our civilization on stable, sustainable foundations.
Since the dawn of the internet, a digital revolution has transformed life for millions of people. Digital files have replaced paper, email has replaced letters, and cell phones provide access to many services that facilitate daily life. This digital revolution is not over, and there is now a growing deployment of technologies grouped under the term "Internet of Things" (IoT)--a worldwide network of interconnected objects that are uniquely addressable via standard communication protocols (1). By 2020, there may be as many as 30 billion objects connected to the internet (2), all of which require energy. These devices may yield direct energy savings (3, 4), but it is much less clear what their net effect on the broader energy system will be.