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

A container ship sails off the coast of Thailand.
Enlarge / A container ship sails off the coast of Thailand.

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 don’t 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, didn’t 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. “We’re 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.”

Streamlined footprint analysis

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 weather forecasting part of the suite may have the most immediate appeal for executives, as it could help companies prepare for severe weather-related disruptions that could delay shipments or close facilities. Here, IBM has plenty of competition, though arguably it has an advantage in The Weather Company and its wide network of personal weather stations. (The Weather Company was the parent organization of The Weather Channel, which was spun off when IBM acquired the Weather Company. The TV channel still receives forecast data from IBM.)

The carbon footprint analysis portion of the suite may seem more esoteric, but it has the potential to make a more lasting impact. IBM isn’t 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 company’s 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.

Emissions scopes

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.

The third, Scope 3, is the hardest to crack and often the least accurate. These are emissions that come from the fringe of a company’s supply chain. For a laptop, Scope 3 would include pollution produced by smelting aluminum for the enclosure. It would also include carbon emitted while manufacturing machines that print circuit boards. Companies don’t have direct control over what happens in Scope 3, but these emissions still count toward their footprint. It remains to be seen if IBM can help companies reach across vast supply chains to produce accurate data, but if they do, it would be a significant step—emissions-reduction goals can only be successful if they’re based on accurate data.

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, they’ll face choices—hire thousands of carbon accountants or lean on software to lighten the load.