As businesses and individuals become more aware of the environmental, social and economic impacts of their actions, sustainability has emerged as a key focus area.
To achieve sustainability goals, organizations and individuals need to take a holistic approach that involves reducing negative impacts and promoting positive change across all areas of operation. In this context, the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and natural language processing technology, such as ChatGPT, to promote sustainability has become a topic of increasing interest. However, it is important to recognize the potential challenges and limitations of using AI in the context of sustainability. In this blog, we explore whether ChatGPT can help improve sustainability, examining the potential benefits and challenges of using AI to promote sustainable practices.
Providing insights and ideas
Chatbots serve as a valuable generator of insights and ideas, trained from extensive databases. To demonstrate what ChatGPT is capable of generating, the introductory paragraph above is entirely written by ChatGPT. When the right question is prompted, ChatGPT is able to give context-specific ideas generated from vast amounts of texts and writings, with the ability to adapt responses with the direction of the user. It has proven to be efficient in market research and analysis and even creating lists of potential new ideas. Consequently, Large Language Models (LLM) can provide businesses with a significant competitive advantage.
There are various ways that a business can leverage ChatGPT for these purposes. For instance, ChatGPT can contribute to efficient energy management by offering innovative ideas and latest technological adaptations. It can also provide guidance on best practices for driving positive social impact and help benchmark a business’ performance against those practices. Additionally, ChatGPT can deliver up-to-date information on government guidelines and industry regulations. These insights, ideas and updates enable businesses with educated, and well-informed decision-making.
Education and upskilling
ChatGPT not only offers an extensive library of information covering various topics, courses or industry-specific knowledge, but it also provides the capability to summarise and expand on ideas, as well as interacting with the user (to challenge any ideas, for instance). Its interactive nature truly differentiates ChatGPT from other platforms and search engines to education: by allowing users to engage in dialogue and receive tailored responses based on previous discussions. This ‘Q&A’ capability enhances the educational experience, promoting awareness and understanding of sustainability issues.
Education is identified as one of the critical roles within sustainability. Staying informed about best practices, technological advancements as well as upskilling the workforce all helps a company achieve sustainability goals – such as achieving carbon neutral, training employees on ED&I, and ensuring policy aligns with compliance and regulations.
Elevating business operations
When combined with applications of Internet of Things (IoT) to connect the digital and physical worlds, an impressive amount of efficiency can be further improved across the operation of a business. Research from the US Department of Energy indicates that manufacturers can use predictive maintenance to achieve 70-75% reduction in breakdowns, along with 35-45% decrease in downtime with the help of IoT, not to mention the impressive improvement in response time. Apart from energy savings to lower the carbon impact, the cost savings can easily be re-invested into pursuing relevant sustainability goals, such as waste reduction, emissions control and investment in energy-efficient appliances.
A Trade-off in Carbon Footprint
However, it is not surprising that ChatGPT comes with its own carbon footprint – it is a cloud service after all. The challenge lies within whether the carbon footprint that ChatGPT generates can be justified by the amount of impact or sustainability value-add that can be achieved through using ChatGPT. According to the 2023 AI Index report, OpenAI’s model released 502 metric tonnes of carbon during its training: a comparison is illustrated in the bar graph below. Although it may not be obvious or directly measurable how much carbon footprint ChatGPT has brought to individual businesses, it is an important metric to be taken into consideration: using ChatGPT to overcome sustainability challenges has its own trade-offs. In fact, research and analytics firm Gartner has predicted that AI will consume more energy than the human workforce by 2025. Artificial Intelligence is on track to significantly offset carbon zero gains.
An ethical standpoint
In addition to environmental concerns, reliability, authenticity and security also pose barriers to individuals and businesses adopting this technology. In order to generate an answer, ChatGPT typically cross-references, and collates vast amounts of text. These libraries of data may include content which is untrue, has copyright protections, or contain sensitive information. Users may perceive information as ‘authentic’ output without realising the risk of plagiarism involved. It is also difficult to know what the answer is based upon as there is no single source of data that the user can trace the answer back to, creating another level of uncertainty when considering the technology’s reliability. For such reason, science journals have banned listing of ChatGPT as co-author on research papers.
Data such as previous conversations with ChatGPT may also be used for further training purposes, and as a result sensitive information could potentially be put at risk. For example, business owners may have unknowingly input sensitive data into ChatGPT for its competitors to exploit. The ethical practice of ChatGPT is currently being debated, and is a research area in itself.
ChatGPT is a double-sided dagger to sustainability – it offers numerous applications that have been used to educate, inspire, and enable individuals and businesses to improve sustainability. However, considering the hidden cost of its own carbon footprint as well as ethical concerns it raises, urgent measures are necessary to regulate the use of Artificial Intelligence, together with ethical and data protection guidelines. In the short run, I believe ChatGPT poses more challenges to sustainability compared to its potential benefits that it brings to businesses. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that future developments will allow a less energy intensive use of such technology, and ultimately justify the use of ChatGPT in improving sustainability in the long run.
At 4C Associates, we ensure the best sustainability practice is observed and applied to projects across all industries and subject matter. Our solution to sustainability strategy is based on a two-phase ‘ABC’ diagnostic and ‘4C’ implementation methodologies. If you would like to learn more about our Sustainability Service Offering and how we have helped companies achieve their sustainability goals, please feel free to get in touch with Partner Allison Ford-Langstaff. We’re always happy to share thoughts, and learn from you as well.