On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Wednesday 22 April, climate scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh OBE delivered The Alan Turing Institute’s first virtual-only Turing Lecture: Plan AI, because there is no planet B. Shuckburgh reflected on the dual challenges of the climate crisis and the unfolding COVID-19 public health crisis. She called for the UK to ensure global responses are coordinated for the future safety of ourselves and our planet.

On COVID-19’s impact on global CO2 emissions, Shuckburgh explained that as a consequence of lockdown, we may see the largest ever fall this year in carbon dioxide emissions. While she cautioned it’s too early to tell definitively and there’s always a lag in reporting, all indicators were pointing in this direction.

Even in light of the pandemic, Shuckburgh set the context that we are in a climate emergency. 2019 was Europe's warmest year on record, according to new data published this week to mark 50 years since Earth Day in 1970. The European data, which comes from the EU's Copernicus Climate Service, showed that 11 of the 12 warmest years on record on the continent have occurred since 2000.

Despite these mounting challenges, Shuckburgh urged us to rise to the occasion: “This is where an opportunity for good can come out of the very dismal circumstances we find ourselves in. We need to encourage and incentivise virtual working behaviour and some of the other changes we’ve been making over the last few weeks.”

“Not only have we seen the very dramatic impacts of coronavirus, if we look back over the last year and a bit, we've also seen a really dramatic change in global society with respect to climate change with Greta Thunberg and the rise of Fridays for Future school strikes for instance. There is a real sense that is not going away, even within the period where we are acutely focused on the response to coronavirus,” she added.

Having accurate climate data is critical and AI and machine learning has the potential to help decisionmakers in future. Shuckburgh talked about the role of AI in helping to analyse vast amounts of environmental data from around the world (e.g. satellites in space and networks of sensors on the ground). This analysis is enabling scientists to combine data from future projections of climate change on a large scale and interpolate results down to a particular location.

In direct response to how climate change and COVID-19 interlink, Shuckburgh cited that the impact of climate change can never be considered in isolation. “As we are sitting in midst of other global emergencies a key consideration is understanding and quantifying how all these different risks interconnect, for instance food security, evacuations due to extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones while preserving social distancing, and extra stress and strain on health systems especially in light of extreme heatwaves occurring around the world.”

Coronavirus has changed our society as we know it, and resultingly has forced the UK’s planned hosting of the next big climate conference COP26 in November to be delayed. However, Shuckburgh says that we can still use our leadership within the UK to ensure global responses to COVID-19 are delivering net zero by 2050 or sooner.

She called for the global community to collectively focus on delivering on energy, infrastructure, jobs of the future, and nature-based solutions. Finally, Shuckburgh emphasised the critical importance of ensuring we are providing people with the right skills and training for the jobs of the future, where AI and the digital revolution are going to be central, alongside the opportunities inherent in transforming to a zero-carbon world.

Watch the lecture in full: Plan AI, because there is no planet B

Read our exclusive interview on The Turing Blog: Three questions with Earth Day Turing Lecturer Emily Shuckburgh