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Post COP28: AI and the business of climate action

Welcome back to UCL Generation One: The Climate Podcast. Introducing episode 6 of season four.

This episode’s focus is on entrepreneurial climate action: what are businesses – particularly the AI sector – doing to combat the climate crisis and help reach net zero?

Helping our hosts Mark and Simon answer these questions are Sims Witherspoon (current UCL student studying for MSC in climate change and Climate and Sustainability Lead at Google DeepMind), Buffy Price (COO and Co-Founder of Carbon Re, an AI startup which aims to accelerate decarbonisation), and Zoe Cokeliss Barsley (Director of Sustainability at Oxford University Press) and UCL alumna (MSc Conservation 2003).

Views expressed by our guests are their own.

Transcript

UCL Minds  0:02 

We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

Sims Witherspoon  0:11 

I am a tech optimist. I am optimistic that it will help us solve some of the challenges, especially related to climate change.

Buffy Price  0:20 

One of the reasons we set up Carbon Re was we wanted to have something that would have a direct impact on carbon emissions, in the short to medium term.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  0:28 

The carbon footprint of a digital publication has about 10% the carbon footprint of if you actually printed that book and shipped it around the world.

Mark Maslin  0:41 

This is Generation One from University College London, turning climate science and ideas into action.

So I'm Mark Maslin, and I'm a professor of Earth Systems Science here at UCL, which of course, by now hopefully, if you've been listening to all our podcasts, you'll know that, what does that mean? Well, it means that I study climate change in the past, the present and the future.

Simon Chin-Yee  1:10 

And I'm Simon Chin-Yee, Political Sciences at UCL. And I think about African politics, policy, climate change, and all things vulnerable populations. So Mark, you've got this new title, the Vice Provost for the Climate Crisis, and it's a brand new title here at UCL. What on earth is that?

Mark Maslin  1:29 

So it is a huge mouthful of a title. And I love the fact that the longer the title, perhaps the more important you are, I don't think that's true. What's lovely is for the last 10 years, UCL has had the Grand Challenges, and we've had five Grand Challenges. And we've tried to make sure that there's interdisciplinary and there's interaction, but of course the world moves on. And so what UCL has done is sat down, talked to all the stakeholders and gone: Right. What are the new Grand Challenges for the next decade. And we started off with health and wellbeing which we've set up. And then the next one is the climate crisis. So Lisa Vanhala and I together are the joint leads of that. And our job is to try and actually pull together everybody that's working on the climate crisis in UCL, pull them together, get them to interact, see if we can get some really exciting interdisciplinary work going, you know, the sorts of things that you and I do together, and then also then make sure that we can then publicise that. So my job with Lisa is to help us do better, greater, more important policy-relevant research, but then also shout about it from the tops of the towers, basically, to tell everybody, we're here to actually engage and help industry, business, and of course, policymakers. And if you're listening, governments. So with this in mind, this episode we're going to be focusing on the entrepreneurial climate action: what are businesses, companies, and particularly the AI sector, doing to combat the climate crisis, and help us reach net zero as quickly as possible?

Sims Witherspoon is currently a UCL student studying for an MSc in climate change. And she's also AI Sustainability Lead at Google Deep Mind. Sims talks to us today in her capacity as an individual, not on the behalf of Google DeepMind.

So Sims, congratulations on the birth of your son, Pierce, who is here joining us. So if you hear any crying, it's not me. Not Simon. It's probably our producer.

Simon Chin-Yee  3:51 

And our youngest ever podcaster.

Mark Maslin  3:54 

Three months old, three months old, and we have we have the full range. So to kick off Sims, can I ask you, what does your job entail?

Sims Witherspoon  4:04 

Yep. So I work with a group of research engineers and research scientists on the application of artificial intelligence to climate change challenges. And effectively what that means is we try to use AI to solve problems that are driving climate change.

Simon Chin-Yee  4:19 

For our listeners, and me, what is AI? And what is it good at? And what can it not do?

Sims Witherspoon  4:27 

So AI is a broad field of computer science, that mainly deals with creating intelligent machines that are capable of you know, tasks that we typically rely on human intelligence for. So I think when we're talking about artificial intelligence, it's basically trying to get machines to learn and adapt. So you know, analysing data and identifying patterns, also to reason and solve problems, and also to understand and really respond to the world. So helping us solve challenges. As far as AI goes, in addition to machine learning there are loads of other subsets. So there's natural language processing and robotics computer vision. So ML is really just one of those. I always like to create that designation, because sometimes people go back and forth between the two.

Simon Chin-Yee  5:12 

And by the time Pierce is old enough to understand, where do you think AI will be then?

Sims Witherspoon  5:16 

Oh, man by the time he's old enough, I think well, I mean, I think he understands now. Honestly, you know, I'm really excited about what's coming for general intelligence. I genuinely believe that we're not too, too far away from systems that can solve a variety of challenges. And so hopefully, he'll be using those kinds of systems when he's my age.

Mark Maslin  5:38 

So in the face of such challenges that you and I know, like climate change, where do you think AI can make a difference?

Sims Witherspoon  5:47 

I mean, climate change is such a broad challenge and area, right? So AI is not always going to be the best tool, we start by saying that. You know, it's a social issue, a political issue and economic issue, you know, and also this big scientific challenge. And when we think about using AI, AI is going to excel in the areas and the problems where you can actually, you know, define the problem well, where there's enough data that is accurate and representative of the problem at hand. And also where you have really clear benchmarks and success criteria. So that's kind of overall where AI can excel, and the types of problems that will help you kind of opt in or opt out: is AI right for the challenge that we're facing here. I think more specifically, the way I like to think of the framework is that AI can help with understanding optimising and accelerating in these challenge areas. So when I say understand, I mean, AI can help us understand climate change and its effects on Earth's ecosystems. It can help us optimise, you know, current systems and infrastructure that we rely on today. And it can also help us accelerate the breakthrough tech that we need for tomorrow. And if you think about that framework, it really is applicable in almost any area. Whether you're talking about industry, or agriculture or energy systems, climate science, and you know, I think that's why it's really an exciting tool to be using in this space.

Simon Chin-Yee  7:13 

And in that vein, I mean, every company is using it. Tech companies, UCL we use it, everyone's starting to use AI. Is there an area of business that you are most excited about?

Sims Witherspoon  7:25 

One of the areas that I'm really excited about seeing the application of AI is in material science. So there is a company called orbital materials that was started by a former colleague of mine, whose name is Johnny Godwin, who I hope doesn't mind me dropping his name on this podcast, oops sorry, Johnny! But they're doing really, really cool things over there, because they're using AI to basically design materials that for instance, with direct air capture, one of the big problems with that is that the materials that are being used aren't carbon sorbent enough. And the amount of land cover that you have to have in order to use the materials that we have today is like really, really vast. So you get folks like Bill Gates talking about the economics of direct air capture just not really working out. And so AI can be used to come up with new materials that are more CO2 sorbent. So we can actually use less landmass covered by these products and get the type of efficiency and effectiveness that we really need, as far as you know, carbon capture goes. So businesses like that I find really, really interesting, because, you know, they'll make a good bit of money doing it, and it's good for the planet. So win-win.

Mark Maslin  8:35 

I mean, I have to say one of the areas that really is exciting is fusion energy. Because this is great, it could provide huge amounts of renewable, clean energy. But like with your example, they need new elements, they need new constructions. And actually, AI can actually help them go through and synthesise what is the best new material to line the reactor, you know, and things like that. So I think there's lots and lots of elements of where AI can help, and of course, not take over the planet.

Sims Witherspoon  9:10 

That's a really good point. I think with fusion, it's funny that you mentioned it in the business context. Because absolutely, I still think of it also as just a research problem. So when I think of it, my mind goes there. We had a team at Google DeepMind that developed an AI system that was able to control plasma in a real-world tokamak reactor, which is pretty cool. And you know, we're hoping that because it is a key component of understanding plasma physics, that that is very much on the road to eventually reaching this, you know, nearly inexhaustible supply of carbon free energy. So that would be pretty cool. And absolutely, AI is a use case there.

Mark Maslin  9:48 

Sims, a lot of your examples and a lot of people talk about how AI can help climate mitigation, i.e. stopping emissions or taking missions out of the atmosphere. How do you also think that AI can actually help us adapt to climate change? Because it's already in the system, it's already affecting people. Are there adaptations that can be helped with AI?

Sims Witherspoon  10:13 

Yeah, absolutely. You know, I go back to that understand, optimise, accelerate framework. And you can again, you can apply that in adaptation as well. So in understanding, you know, AI models can help us understand the rise of sea levels and erosion along coasts that can then enable communities that are there to develop adaptation strategies and deal with what's happening more effectively. And optimise you know, we can use AI models to help with more sustainable agriculture by making recommendations on water usage, and also, you know, most effective pest control. And you know, when we're looking at accelerate, we've also started to see instances of AI being used in genomics. So if you think about plant genomics and helping to engineer more adaptable plants that are more resilient to the effects of climate change. So, you know, basically, absolutely, it's useful in adaptation as well. Right, Pierce?

Mark Maslin  11:10 

Pierce is doing so well. I'm gonna ask you one last question. I'm going off script here.

Sims Witherspoon  11:17 

Yeah, go for it.

Mark Maslin  11:18 

So when I talk to my daughters, who are now 18, and 24, I'm the generation before Google, I'm the generation before mobile phones really took off. And so therefore, there's been a huge generational shift. How do you think the future is going to look when Pierce is that strapping young man, 18, going off to university and you're having that sigh of relief? Like, yes, he's gone! He's gone into the world! How do you see the world? How do you see what we've done with climate change? Where do you see AI? And no one's going to hold you to this in 18 years time because no one's going to be listening to this podcast.

Simon Chin-Yee  12:00

We’ll have moved on from podcasts.

Mark Maslin  12:02

Exactly, we’ll have moved on from podcasts. We’ll be doing direct transfer into the brain. What do you think the world is gonna look like?

Sims Witherspoon  12:07 

Oh, man, and in, you know, nearly two decades from now, it's so hard to say. What I can say is what I'm hopeful for. So I am a tech optimist. You know, I’m not a solutionist. I don't think we're going to use tech to solve all the problems. But I am optimistic that it will help us solve some of the challenges, especially related to climate change more quickly and at a greater scale than we could do without it. So that's one of my hopes for the future: that in two decades – actually in less than that, but we'll say in two decades, since that's the timeframe you asked about – that we've used AI and technology to, you know, actually get close to net zero, that we’re on that path, and that we’re advanced, very far down that path, actually. That tools like AI are helping us produce new knowledge that we didn't expect to be able to already have access to, you know, we see this and things like alpha fold, where just a couple of years ago, Google DeepMind was able to solve the scientific grand challenge of protein folding using AI models. And I would love to see many more challenges and do believe that many more challenges like that will be unlocked using this technology. I definitely am tech positive and hope that the future looks like human experts using tech in the most effective way to solve the greatest problems that we have. I know that's a bit of a more general answer, but it's very hard to pinpoint where we will be in 18 years.

Mark Maslin  13:36 

And whatever we say now will probably be wrong.

Sims Witherspoon  13:39 

Yeah, that's so true.

Simon Chin-Yee  13:40 

But thank you Sims, I want to thank you very much for coming in. And thank you, Piers, for coming in and joining us. You've been really informative about what AI is doing and potentially what will happen in the future.

Sims Witherspoon  13:51

Great. Thanks, Simon. Thanks, Mark.

Simon Chin-Yee  13:53

Thank you, Sims, for that really interesting delve into AI’s capabilities in terms of climate mitigation and solutions.

UCL Minds  14:01 

You're listening to UCL Generation One, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Simon Chin-Yee  14:08 

We're going to hear from Buffy Price: the CEO and co-founder of Carbon Re, an AI startup which aims to accelerate decarbonisation. We caught up with Buffy at UCL’s recent event with Climate Reality called Love Your Planet, when Buffy told us more about what Carbon Re is up to.

Buffy Price  14:27 

We’re looking at the pyroprocessing part of cement production. So that applies to other foundation industries that also have these high heat processes such as steel, ceramics, paper, glass, and combined they account for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So they're really, really big players. I think cement alone is more than aviation, farming, combined. So if it was a country, it'd be the third biggest emitter after China and US. I mean, it's an extraordinary amount. So our first product’s called delta zero cement, and it can reduce carbon emissions. And there's sort of a 2% sphere, we're looking at moving that to about 5% this year in the coming months. The more we have an opportunity to look at historical data and live plant data, the better our models get. And we're layering models on top of our MVP at the moment to push the envelope of reduction opportunities. But we are operating live implants in a closed loop control processes in one of the plants in Brazil. And that's a world first, that's never been done, deploying our technology directly into a system to automate this process. And we've moved – traditionally, it's a very active process, it takes about four hours, or so, one to four hours of clinker being made coming out of the plant, cooling down, going to the lab to test it to see what the quality is – we're able to make predictive adjustments to that process. So really just being much more efficient about the whole process. And that's a game changer for the industry. And they are really, really low margins. I’ve mentioned that they've got taxes coming, high fuel bills, you know, two to 3 million a year in savings can be a game changer for them.

Mark Maslin  16:13 

Buffett explained why the deployment of software has the potential to make rapid and significant changes to traditional industry.

Buffy Price  16:22 

I mean, it's extraordinary. So one of the reasons we set up Carbon Re was we wanted to have something that would have direct impact on carbon emissions in the short to medium term. We set up during lockdown, as I mentioned, it's a cloud-based software, we don't have to go on site, we don't deploy any on prem technologies, no hardware, no capex costs. And we know that the savings that we can achieve through our software are achievable within the current operating processes. So we're not changing anything, we're just being much more efficient, and if you take one to five 8% reduction on a global scale, that's Giga tonnes of carbon emissions reduced every year. And that's really, really significant. And actually, for the industries themselves, they get much more insight about what's going on in the plant, they get better quality, they have less downtime. So there's you know, it's a shifting landscape. Three years ago, people were sort of not that interested, but it feels much more of an open door. I think things like Chat GPT and opening up the conversations around what artificial intelligence can do in the last few years has really changed that conversation, as we sit down with a cement plant producer.

Simon Chin-Yee  17:32 

That was Buffy Price giving insight into how AI is changing the cement industry.

And finally, we move on to our third guest and final industry on today's episode, from the world of publishing. We welcome Zoe Cokeliss Barsley, Director of Sustainability at Oxford University Press, and also a UCL alum.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  17:55 

That's absolutely right. Hi, yes, I did my Masters in Conservation at UCL slightly too many years ago to mention.

Mark Maslin  18:04 

Also, you're one of us then in the Geography Department, because that's where we hosted that wonderful Masters. I'm really glad you did it. So I'm really curious, can you tell us a little bit more about your role as Director of Sustainability for the OUP?

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  18:19 

Yeah, absolutely. So in a nutshell, I guess my role is to establish the direction on anything to do with environmental sustainability for OUP. So covering everything from carbon footprint reduction, reducing our impacts on biodiversity, predominantly through our paper sourcing policies, but also things like waste and packaging. And it really is quite a holistic role. I'm a one-person team. But I work really closely across all of our Operations functions, and with our publishing divisions as well. There's another element we probably won't cover today, but around the role that our content plays. And I think the very short introduction is a really good example, the role that we have through published content on environmental and social issues, and raising awareness about the problems, but also solutions as well.

Simon Chin-Yee  19:06 

So we've been looking at how technology and artificial intelligence is helping the climate crisis. We are interested to hear from you on how technology and AI helps the publishing industry become more sustainable, Zoe.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  19:20 

Yeah, great question. I think this might be a slightly help and hinder answer. Technology helps in the sense that, so I mean, my statistics aren't perfect on this. But the general gist what we're getting from industry analysis, is the carbon footprint of a digital publication. So a textbook, accessing it online, has about 10%, the carbon footprint of if you actually printed that book and shipped it around the world, and then ended up disposing of it. So digital publications themselves have a significantly lower footprint, even though it's not zero. Obviously, you need energy for things like data hosting and accessing – most of the footprint is actually in end user devices, so people using their laptops and tablets and that kind of thing. But nevertheless, it's a, you know, an order of magnitude smaller AI, I think is a slightly different matter. And this is something that the industry is trying to understand the impact of at the moment, because obviously, it's incredibly energy intensive. It also needs, as with any data centre, operations, huge amounts of water for cooling. So AI, I think, I have no doubt there will be some positives from it in terms of supporting the climate crisis. But also there are issues that we need to address as well, in terms of whether there's a shift from digital publications being low impact to actually digital content, more interactive content, being higher impact as well.

Simon Chin-Yee  20:44 

Can I follow up on that Zoe? Just quickly, what are you doing at OUP to take into account the AI sphere that we're now living in?

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  20:53 

Yeah, it's really early days. So there's a lot of work happening on AI that I'm not involved in, in terms of obviously, the risks and opportunities from a business perspective. We're members of an organisation called DIMPACT, which is a media and publishing collaboration, looking at the carbon footprint, specifically of digital content. So it's not just publishers, but also, organisations like Netflix and the BBC are part of that as well, I believe. And that group is starting to try to understand or to quantify the impact of AI. Now, obviously, it'll vary dramatically. Whether it's, and I'm no AI expert, but very dramatically in terms of the amount of processing that's required to perform the function. So it's really early days. You know, we don't have any answers yet. But I think definitely it's coming up more and more.

Mark Maslin  21:42 

What's the consumer uptake of digital publishing compared with paper books? And I'm really curious, has there been a resurgence of paper books after COVID?

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  21:53 

So I think for OUP, we've got three different publishing divisions, or three different types of publications that we produce. One is academic, so journals, university textbooks, that sort of thing, and kind of research. The consumers of that content, digital is incredibly popular. You know, if you want to read a journal article, I used to have to go to the Radcliffe science library at Oxford and hope that there was still a copy left of the journal that I wanted to photocopy. Now actually, if you want to research a journal article, you just type it in and it pops up. And so journals are really shifting, not just for OUP, but others in the sector as well are shifting to online. So that's pretty much, not quite 100%, but getting there. Similarly, for digital textbook content, that's going that direction too, maybe a little bit more conservatively. The other parts of our organisation are educational books, so school textbooks, for example, but also early readers and that sort of thing. And also English language teaching materials. That's a little bit different in the sense that from the school textbook, it really depends where in the world your consumers are, for example, we sell a fair amount in Sub Saharan Africa or in South Asia. And the access to technology for schoolchildren, is just not the same as it is in the UK in the US, for example. So I think we can expect that for the foreseeable future, at least, maybe not forever, to be fairly, you know, print led, slightly different for English language teaching, I think that's more of a blended model, where there's still that desire for books in schools and that sort of thing. But also, and this, I think, possibly is where AI is gonna come in, is more interactive language learning, through apps and that sort of thing rather than having static content that people are downloading.

Simon Chin-Yee  23:50 

Exactly. And given that for people books are still a large part of the market. I mean, I like to hold a physical copy of a book in my hand myself. So what is being done to support sustainable forestry practices?

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  24:02 

Great question. And I think this is – So for us, one of the first things that I did when I joined up was to do an analysis of what our environmental footprint is. Paper is by far the biggest impact both from a biodiversity perspective but also a climate perspective. So it's a real priority for us as an organisation, but also as an industry to make sure that the paper that we're using is sourced responsibly. We have at OUP, we have a target to source only certified sustainable paper, with very, very few exceptions, where it's not available, by 2025. And we're progressing really well on that. I think we're up to about 90% now, which is great. And that is predominantly using organisations like PEFC and the Forest Stewardship Council who have well established protocols for ensuring that, you know, forest products and paper in particular, is sourced in a way that doesn't adversely affect nature. I think the sector as a whole, but also the certification sector is really now looking at how they can make that more robust, you know, they're not perfect systems. There are instances where the standards are not adhered to as well as they could be, I think, but there's new legislation coming in. And I don't know if you're familiar with the EU's deforestation regulation that's coming into force later this year, that has some incredibly stringent standards for any publications. And in fact, any commodities, not just paper, being sold into the EU, around where the tree was grown effectively, and making sure that that isn't part of an illegally logged area or an area that's contributing to deforestation. So the existing certification schemes have been fantastic. And they're definitely best in class, you know, for sourcing sustainable paper. But that also is needing to up its game now, which is happening.

Mark Maslin  26:01 

So when you're looking at the whole of your remit, which is the OUP, what's the greatest barriers you feel in stopping you becoming more sustainable?

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  26:13 

I think the biggest challenge for us is that the vast majority of our, and I'm gonna say environmental footprint, the data I'm basing this on is carbon footprint, actually, but it kind of goes hand in hand. The vast majority, I think about 90% of our environmental footprint actually sits in our upstream manufacturing supply chain, and through our kind of business partners, if you like. So we've got a big role in influencing suppliers, having standards when we're selecting suppliers to ensure that we're working with partners that are doing the right thing from an environmental perspective. But it's not something that we can directly control. And that's not exclusive to OUP. That's any company in any sector that has outsourced manufacturing. I mean, I worked in apparel and footwear before, and it was exactly the same, it's an influencing job rather than a, you know, “let's change this directly in our operations”. I think that's the hardest. And actually, everyone's on the same journey. And the suppliers that are producing for all of the big brands in any sector, are generally working in the right direction, because they need to for their customer base. We’re reliant on huge amounts of chemicals in our production, for inks and binding and, you know, glues and all that sort of thing, other materials that are going into making books. So everything's working hand in hand, I think we need to, across sectors, think about alternative materials and footprints and things we can do to reduce impact. Both in terms of efficiencies, like, you know, not producing more than you can sell so that you're not wasting stock, for example, but also in terms of the actual materials that are going into production.

Mark Maslin  27:49 

So Zoe, I just want to pick up on something you said that was really interesting at the beginning of this interview, where you turned around and said that you have, as part of the press, it's about being sustainable, it’s how you actually run the organisation. But also it's about your product, it's about books, it's about the online material that actually informs people about climate change, and sustainability. And I have a particular personal interest here, because my book, “How to Save Our Planet”, published by Penguin, fantastic reviews, trust me, they were good. But then when I did the follow up with them, the editor was very positive. But it was blocked by the managing director who said no, I'm sorry, environmental books don't sell. How do you as a press, try to actually balance the books, be sustainable, but also then produce real meaningful output that actually helps.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  28:50 

What we are seeing is an increase in demand, I think pretty much consistently across our categories for content talking about, I'm gonna say SDG topics, because it's more holistic than just the environment. For example, you know, there are some specifics I can't give you because they haven't been launched yet. But you know, an increased demand for academic content in our English language teaching division, looking at how we can build SDG topics into the sort of language learning discussion topics. And partly that's fuelled by demand from governments and that sort of thing. I think Italy for years has had a requirement to include SDG related content in their school learning. But also on the education side, actually, a demand to educate young people at all different stages of their school education about these issues so that they're equipped when they go into the workplace they already know what the issues are, they already know what's been tried, you know, failed already, but also start sparking some ideas about what they can either do as a career or how it will link in to what it is that they do. So I'm going to give you one example, which is the Oxford international curriculum on sustainability that our education division are launching really soon. And that is for, I believe, it's secondary age for international schools, a really comprehensive curriculum on sustainability and how that is built into sort of cross themes. How sustainability is built into education. So yeah, there's a lot going on, I think, a really interesting focus area. Just a plug for our responsible publishing report, which we've produced annually now for the past two years, the next one’s coming out in May. And that has a section in it on the impacts that we make through our content. So if people are interested in that, and what OUP is doing, they can take a look there for some examples as well.

Mark Maslin  30:46 

Thank you, Zoe. And I have to say, it's great to have you on the podcast. And I'm so glad that we have people like you in key roles in huge publishers like OUP, who have a major influence across the world and in the publishing world, but beyond, as you said, into the chemical industry into forestry and beyond. So, thank you again, Zoe.

Zoe Cokeliss Barsley  31:11 

Pleasure, nice to meet you all.

Mark Maslin  31:19 

That's it for this episode of Generation One from UCL, turning climate science and ideas into action. But stay tuned for the rest of the series, or listen on catch up to all our episodes on your favourite platform. If you'd like to ask a question or suggest a guest that you would like to hear on Generation One, you can email us on podcasts@ucl.ac.uk. Otherwise, for more information about UCL’s work on the climate space, and what our staff and students as well as our researchers are doing to create a more sustainable future, head to the UCL Generation One website, or follow us on social media #UCLGenerationOne.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai