Climate change will have significant impacts on environmental, social, political, and economic systems around the world – and particularly in Africa and South Africa, which are disproportionately affected by the risks posed by climate change.

Climate change mitigation, along with adaptation and resilience, is therefore crucial. Efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 will be essential, as will efforts to prepare for the consequences of climate change and to minimise the resulting harm.

Applying advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to climate challenges provides a vital way to make meaningful change at this critical moment.

These are among the conclusions in a new report from the AI for the Planet Alliance, titled How AI Can Be a Powerful Tool in the Fight Against Climate Change and produced in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and BCG GAMMA. It finds that 88% of public- and private-sector leaders who oversee climate and AI topics in South Africa and Latin America believe that AI is a valuable asset in the fight against climate change – just above the 87% of leaders globally.

Based on survey results from over 1 000 executives with decision-making authority on AI or climate-change initiatives and 49 in South Africa, the report finds that roughly 40% of organisations worldwide can envision using AI for their own climate efforts.

However, even among these experts, there is widespread agreement that significant barriers to broad adoption remain in place: 78% of respondents cite insufficient AI expertise as an obstacle to using AI in their climate change efforts, 77% cite limited availability of AI solutions as a roadblock, and 67% point to a lack of confidence in AI-related data and analysis.

South Africa and Latin America follow these trends, with 75% of leaders citing insufficient AI expertise as an obstacle, 71% citing limited availability of AI solutions and 57% noting a lack of confidence in AI-related data and analysis.

“AI’s unique ability to gather, complete, and interpret large, complex data sets means it can help stakeholders take a more informed and data-driven approach to combatting carbon emissions and addressing climate risks,” says Frederic Boutet, MD and partner at BCG, Johannesburg and lead of BCG GAMMA South Africa. “However, most existing AI-related climate solutions are scattered, tend to be difficult to access, and lack the resources to scale. These shortcomings need to change to derive the value AI can provide in tackling climate challenges.”

According to the report, global and South African leaders can use AI to achieve their goals in multiple ways:

* Mitigation. One of the most critical uses of AI is in the measurement, reduction, and removal of emissions and greenhouse gas (GHG) effects. More than 60% of public- and private-sector leaders in South Africa and Latin America, as well as globally, see the greatest business value for their organisations in the measurement of emissions. The value of reducing emissions follows closely behind, with 57% of global leaders – and 48% of South African and Latin American leaders – seeing the business importance of lowering emissions. According to BCG, use of AI can drive reductions of 5% to 10% GHG emissions, or 2.6 to 5.3 gigatons of CO2e if applied globally.

* Adaptation and resilience. Adapting to climate change is a critical undertaking for policy makers and the public, as it boosts resilience to the effects of both long-term climate trends and extreme weather events. AI is well suited to help project climate-related hazards, whether by improving long-term projections of localised events such as sea-level rise or by upgrading early warning systems for extreme phenomena such as hurricanes, floods or droughts. South African and Latin American leaders follow the global trend in recognising the value of AI in managing vulnerabilities and exposure to these events, with 45% of South African and Latin American leaders seeing the greatest business value in using AI to manage vulnerabilities compared to 44% globally.

* Fundamentals. AI can be used to support research and education efforts about climate change, helping stakeholders understand the risks and implications involved and encouraging them to share what they learn. These efforts support and magnify ongoing work toward mitigation and adaptation and resilience. Nearly 40% (36%) of South African and Latin American leaders recognise the business value of using AI to facilitate climate research, climate finance, and education, compared to 28% of global leaders.

A multitude of critical uses exist for AI in the climate change arena, but any successful AI solution must be user-friendly and readily accessible. It must offer tangible benefits to the user and provide clear recommendations that are easy to act on. AI solutions therefore need much more meaningful support, including access to capital investment, decision makers, and trained practitioners.

“AI has strong promise to help solve the climate crisis, but AI alone is not enough. It depends on the will of decision makers to act and make necessary changes–supported in part by AI and other emerging technologies,” says Damien Gromier, founder of AI for the Planet and a coauthor of the report.