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Paul Collins

October 17th, 2023

The role of Artificial Intelligence in environmental regulation

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Paul Collins

October 17th, 2023

The role of Artificial Intelligence in environmental regulation

0 comments | 17 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into our lives promises to change the way we live and interact with our environment. However, if we are to realise and adopt any benefits of AI, we must face the challenges and ethical considerations that come with it, including in relation to environmental regulation, writes Paul Collins.

“My program will not allow me to act against an officer of this company”.

Quote from Robocop (1987)

Environmental regulation is complex, time-consuming and expensive. AI can help in making regulation more efficient and effective. Some reported uses of AI in this area include:

  • Predicting environmental risks – for example, predicting oils spills or natural disasters. This can help enforcement bodies prepare for potential incidents and respond more quickly and effectively.
  • Informing policy decisions – for example, in evaluating the impact of proposed policies and laws by simulating different scenarios and predicting outcomes. AI can help identify areas for improvement.
  • Monitoring compliance with environmental law – for example, by analysing data from drone footage, satellite imagery and social media posts. AI can also identify resource optimisation by selecting where manual inspection would be most beneficial. One of the key advantages of AI in monitoring compliance with environmental law is its ability to facilitate real-time monitoring and enforcement. AI systems can be used to maintain air and water quality and detect illegal waste dumping. By providing real-time data, AI can help enforcement bodies quickly identify areas that require intervention, leading to more effective and efficient enforcement efforts. Clearly, this raises challenges for enforcement bodies in terms of prioritising performance objectives, allocating resources on the ground and reputation management.

Important implications for regulated organisations

As a result of AI technology being able to deliver or predict potential breaches of environmental law, there’s a higher risk of breaches being detected and environmental sanctions resulting. Regulated organisations could be subject to greater scrutiny and regulatory action, in particular where AI technology provides a low-cost method for detecting potential breaches of environmental law.

However, decisions made by AI technology are open to challenge. For example, drone image footage or satellite data could easily be processed wrongly by AI technology, predicting a breach of environmental law where none exists. Similarly, a business that invests in AI technology would need to be alive to the fact that while the technology may be relatively inexpensive (say, compared to an environmental fine), the technology is not infallible, and errors could result in a business being wrongly accused of a breach.

For businesses that wish to invest in AI technology, it’s important to be aware of the regulatory environment and the potential impact of AI on the business. In-house teams should include regular testing of AI models and systems for handling errors. Business should design and implement procedures for the use of AI in environmental compliance, including how data is to be collected, stored and shared, reflecting new legislation and guidance from the environmental regulators.

Accountability and liability and the role of courts

The many challenges that AI technology raises require innovative and responsive systems to ensure that AI systems are held accountable and used appropriately in environmental law enforcement and decision-making.

AI systems should be required to provide explanations for their decisions, similar to the requirement for human decision-making under the law. This can help ensure that AI systems are accountable and transparent. Policies and legislation should be developed to provide responsible use of AI in environmental law enforcement and decision-making. This can involve measures such as requiring AI systems to be tested for their environmental and socio-economic impact.

AI systems should be required to provide explanations for their decisions, similar to the requirement for human decision-making under the law.

Litigation and courts can play a role in addressing the challenges and opportunities of AI in environmental law enforcement and decision-making. For example, court cases can be used to challenge the use of AI systems in environmental decision-making or to hold organisations to account for environmental damage by the use of AI.

Courts could shape the regulatory framework for AI in environmental law, by interpreting existing law and requirements in light of new technological developments.

A rule of law or rule of algorithm?

A core element of the rule of law is that laws should be accessible so that people can comply with them and know what is expected of them, predictability being paramount. The lack of accessibility of AI could undermine these prescribed attributes. The technology and complexity associated with AI does not make it suitable for human comprehension, insight or transparency. AI has rules, however these rules are rules of mathematics and statistics. The rule of law is dependent on natural language in order to be understood. Therefore, as governance increasingly finds its expression in computer code, its comprehension by the public is bound to decrease. Public services may be automated and algorithms may be used to streamline government. However, by using opaque technology that is incomprehensible, our trust in technology is nothing more than the inability to understand it. AI is an existential threat to the rule of law and a question that has been put is: will the future bring with it a rule of law or a rule of algorithm? The rule of law requires laws that are accessible, that court decisions are accessible and that the effects of laws are foreseeable. However, the use of AI by the judiciary can be seen as undermining these principles.

AI is an existential threat to the rule of law

AI and public standards

AI will transform the way public sector organisations make decisions and deliver public services. The government has committed significant resources to this new technology through the AI Sector Deal, which promises to deliver a more accurate, capable and efficient public sector.

Adherence to high public standards will help fully realise the great benefits of AI in public service delivery. By ensuring that AI is subject to appropriate safeguards and regulations, the public can have confidence that new technologies will be used in a way that upholds the Seven Principles of Public Life (also known as the Nolan Principles).

In February 2020, the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its report Artificial Intelligence in Public Standards, setting out steps to ensure that high standards of public conduct are upheld as AI is adopted more widely across the public sector.

In their report, the Committee makes eight recommendations to government, national bodies and regulators to help create a strong and coherent governance and regulatory framework for AI in the public sector. The recommendations include: (1) all public organisations should publish a statement on how their use of AI complies with relevant laws and regulations before they are deployed in public service delivery and (2) government should establish guidelines for public bodies about the declaration and disclosure of their AI systems.

In July 2023, the Chair of the Committee wrote to the government asking for an update on what progress had been made towards the recommendations and what the government’s plans were for supporting regulators to regulate AI effectively in their sectors and remits. At the time of writing this article, no response had yet been received.

The potential for AI to improve the effectiveness of environmental regulation must be considered alongside ethical principles and implemented in a responsible way. This requires close working between policy makers, researchers and environmental bodies to ensure that AI is used in a way that is transparent, fair and delivers effective environmental protection.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of his employer.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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Paul Collins

Paul Collins is Senior Lawyer at the Environment Agency.

Posted In: Environment and Energy Policy | Environmental Policy and Energy | Government | Law and Order
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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.