Sustainable development

AI and sustainable development

AI is influencing the ability to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in various ways, both positive and negative. Here are a few examples:

Environmental monitoring and conservation (SDGs 13, 14, 15)

AI technologies enable efficient monitoring of environmental data, such as air quality, CO2 and methane emissions, deforestation, and wildlife populations. The World Environment Situation Room (WESR) is a digital platform launched by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2022 that leverages AI to analyse complex datasets and provides near real-time analyses and predictions on various environmental factors. AI-powered models help identify patterns and trends, supporting improved conservation efforts and early warning systems like the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) for natural disasters.

Energy optimisation (SDG 7)

AI algorithms can help combine renewables through smart grids, analyse energy consumption patterns to balance electrical supply and demand, and optimise energy usage in different sectors, such as construction, transportation, and manufacturing. The benefits include the creation of demand-side flexible markets, reduced energy waste, increased efficiency, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

Activities related to the research and product design of advanced AI technologies often require substantial computational resources, which can only be provided by large-scale computing centres. These facilities come at a high financial and environmental cost due to the significant amount of energy and water required to operate and maintain them.

Smart agriculture (SGD 2)

AI-powered tools like remote sensing, drones, and predictive analytics can enhance precision agriculture practices. They help optimise resources, monitor crop health, detect diseases, and improve overall productivity while reducing their environmental impact. The recently-launched NASA Acres consortium is one example of using AI to analyse years of satellite data to bolster food production and security. Notably, this advanced AI-integrated machinery might not be readily available to small-scale farmers, leading to a widening gap between smaller and larger producers in more developed economies.

Advancing healthcare and well-being (SDG 3)

AI can play an important role in healthcare by enhancing diagnosis, treatment, health research, drug development, and governmental public health efforts such as monitoring and outbreak response. However, as WHO emphasises in its guidance on Ethics & Governance of Artificial Intelligence for Health, it is essential to ensure that these technologies prioritise ethics and human rights throughout their design, implementation, and utilisation.

Reducing inequalities (SDGs 1, 5, 8, 10)

AI can assist governments in identifying poverty-stricken regions and facilitating global efforts through the analysis of satellite images. It can also help bridge educational gaps although, at the same time, possibly generating job displacements (e.g. due to the automation of some tasks) and exacerbating existing inequalities, especially in developing countries. Another notable drawback concerns SDG 5 on gender equality. It is still unclear how technologies like smart algorithms, image recognition, or reinforced learning might contribute to discriminatory practices against women and minorities.

Learn more on AI Governance.

At a time when digital technologies are transforming and disrupting industries, economies and broadly speaking societies, the concept of sustainable development becomes all the more relevant. As enablers, technologies such as the Internet, artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing can help us bridge divides between developed and developing countries, tackle global challenges such as poverty, hunger, and climate change, to name a few, and accelerate human well-being.

That said, digital transformation also increases inequalities and disrupts social cohesion. To illustrate, the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 shows a disparity between countries with access to the internet given that over 80 percent of the population in developed countries is online in comparison to the 45 and 20 percent in the developing and least developing countries. It is, therefore, the responsibility of each and every one of us to mitigate and minimise the adverse effects of technology and ensure that it is the driving force behind sustainable development.

The notion of sustainable development appeared in 1987 in the Brundtland Commission Report ‘Our Common Future’ where it was defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. 28 years later, in order to address the contemporary challenges and secure a prosperous future, the international community gathered at the Sustainable Development Summit (2015) where it adopted unanimously the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, set out the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and pledged to ‘leave no one behind’.

An important question that is increasingly being addressed by international, regional as well as state and non-state actors is how digital technologies can fundamentally help us realise the sustainable development goals (SDGs)?

One attempt to tackle this issue came from the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation that provides in its report ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’ a set of recommendations intended to guide governments, companies, and individuals in making policy choices on our sustainable digital future. Other initiatives have also emerged in the past. In 2018, the annual High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) tasked with the review and follow-up of the SDGs issued a Ministerial Declaration where it acknowledged that digitalisation and emerging technologies, in particular the ICTs could play a role in achieving the SDGs under review. It also highlighted the need to act proactively in order to address the (gender) digital divides. The impact of the internet, data, artificial intelligence and other transformative technologies on the SDGs was also addressed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution A/RES/72/242 and A/RES73/17 adopted in 2017 and 2018 respectively while the 2018 Sustainable Development Goals Report dedicated an entire chapter to data as the accelerator behind the realisation of the SDGs.

Sustainable development is also a topic that has found its way onto the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) agenda. Over the years, over 500 sessions and workshops as well as official Forum themes (IGF 2016, IGF 2015, IGF 2012, IGF 2011, IGF 2007, and IGF 2006) explored how the internet could support and promote sustainable growth.

Implementation of the SDGs is also tackled by the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM). The TMF supports the SDGs through sharing of information, best practices and policy experience between multistakeholder actors, namely governments, scientific and research communities, the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders in the field of science, technology and innovation.  The TFM consists of the following components:

  • The Inter-Agency Task Team on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) for the SDGs;
  • Annual multistakeholder STI Forum for the SDGs;
  • Online platform with STI with information and resources on initiatives, mechanisms and programs.

Analogous to the North-South divide, the digital divide is a consequence of rapid digitalisation that failed to ‘lift all boats’ and in turn caused economic and social exclusion of millions of individuals, in particular, vulnerable groups. As a phenomenon that exists at different levels i.e., within countries and between countries, between rural and urban populations, between the old and the young, and ultimately between men and women, digital divide does not only entail access to the internet, but also encompasses a wider scope of issues such as affordability, awareness, and digital literacy. In 2018, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development adopted a framework ‘Targets 2025: Connecting the Other Half’ where it commits to, among other things, affordable broadband services, proficiency in sustainable digital skills and digital gender equality.

A series of studies have been conducted so far on the relationship between digital technology and sustainable development. To illustrate, in 2015 the Internet Society issued a report ‘The Internet and Sustainable Development’ where it described the Internet as a ‘critical enabler of social and economic change’ and explored the link between the SDGs and the WSIS. The same relationship was mapped out by the ITU in ‘Linking WSIS Action Lines with Sustainable Development Goals’.

That said, some SDGs are more digitally-oriented that the others. Huawei’s ‘Accelerating SDGs through ICT’ report reveals that SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and SDG 9 ( Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) with 73%, 71% and 65% respectively have the highest positive correlation with ICTs. The report goes on to emphasise that even slight technological improvements could result in better performance of the previously mentioned SDGs.

This however does not mean that digital transformation does not have a role to play in the realisation of the remaining SDGs. In fact, digital technologies such as smartphones, the Internet, AI, IoT, cloud computing, and data, to name a few all can contribute to the realisation of the SDGs. Global, regional and local solutions such as e-banking and e-money can increase access to financial services in particular in rural areas, whereas AI and machine learning can improve energy efficiency and reduce electricity costs.

The mapping below illustrates how digital technologies can facilitate the successful implementation of the SDGs.


Sustainable development, including in the digital field, can best be achieved if actors work together and contribute their experience, expertise and resources to realising the common goals. For instance, #eSkills4Girls, an initiative based on cooperation between several actors, namely, the G20, UNWomen, OECD, ITU, UNESCO, and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) seeks to contribute to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), in particular in developing countries, by sharing information, recommendations, and good practices on digital inclusion of women.

The mapping also includes several examples of successful local measures which support the realisation of the SDGs. For instance platforms such as ‘Ecubi’ in Mexico or the ‘Too Good to Go’ application in Europe are used to fight food waste, but also to distribute excess food to those in need at the local level and therefore contribute to SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). Other local project such as the e-Rezeki and the eUsahawan launched by the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation promote SDG 1 (No Poverty) by helping individuals acquire digital skills and find work online.

For more concrete examples, click through the visualisation above.

Data as the new currency for innovation is also regarded as an asset for SDGs. In fact, target 17.18 (Partnership for the Goals) calls for the increase in the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts’. This target should come as no surprise given that nowadays data is abundant – it is expected that 175 zettabytes of new data will be created by 2025 in comparison to 33 zettabytes in 2018.

Qualitative and quantitative data can help monitor progress i.e., how much has been done and how much remains to be done, but also stand at the very source of implementation of SDGs given that it can help improve agricultural production (SDG 2 – Zero Hunger), traffic management (SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being) and digitise renewable energy (SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy), to name a few.

Nonetheless, the absence of reliable, accessible, and up-to-date data remains a challenge, in particular, for developing countries. Oftentimes, the lack of capacity, appropriate resources, security and environmental conditions makes sustainable development data collection and analysis problematic. In order to address this difficulty,the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (Data4SDGs) was established on the basis of a recommendation made by the Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG) which seeks to engage stakeholders – including governments, international organisations, civil society and academia to cooperate on data production and use.