AI’s Path to Zero Emissions Is Cloudy AI and data center boom challenges big tech's emissions targets

Published
Jul 10, 2024
Reading time
3 min read
AI’s Path to Zero Emissions Is Cloudy: AI and data center boom challenges big tech's emissions targets

The boom in AI is jeopardizing big tech’s efforts to reach its targets for emissions of greenhouse gasses.

What’s new: Google’s annual environmental report shows that the company’s total carbon dioxide emissions rose nearly 50 percent between 2019 and 2023 to 14.3 million tons. Google attributes the rise to its efforts to satisfy rising demand for AI. 

How it works: Google’s carbon emissions increased 16.7 percent from 2021 to 2022 and another 13.5 percent from 2022 to 2023 for a total 48 percent rise over those periods. “As we further integrate AI into our products, reducing emissions may be challenging due to increasing energy demands from the greater intensity of AI compute, and the emissions associated with the expected increases in our technical infrastructure investment,” the report states.

  • Three-quarters of total emissions, or 10.8 million tons, are associated with purchases that include the data-center hardware and construction. These emissions increased 23 percent from 2019 to 2023 and 8 percent year-over-year.
  • Powering, heating, and cooling data centers and other facilities accounted for around a quarter of Google’s 2023 emissions. Emissions from these activities have increased more than four-fold since 2019.
  • Low-emissions energy has reduced Google’s total data-center emissions substantially, but some regions don’t have enough of it to meet demand. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear energy account for most of the energy consumed by Google’s data centers in Europe, Canada, and South America. However, these sources account for less than 5 percent in Singapore, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Countering the trend: Google is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions on several fronts. Its effort to purchase electricity from low-emissions sources cut its net carbon footprint by around 30 percent in 2023. It claims that its owned-and-operated data centers are 1.8 times more energy-efficient than a typical enterprise data center, and its sixth-generation tensor processing units (TPUs) are 67 percent more efficient than the prior generation. Google has asked its largest hardware partners to match 100 percent of their energy consumption with renewable energy 2029. The company is pursuing several AI-based initiatives to mitigate climate change from weather prediction to fuel-efficient vehicle routing. It says that AI has the potential to mitigate 5 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Behind the news: In 2020, after five years of successfully reducing its carbon footprint, Google set an ambitious target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But its total emissions since then have risen each year. Google’s experience mirrors that of Amazon and Microsoft, which aim to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 and 2040 respectively. Amazon’s emissions increased 39 percent from 2019 to 2022, while Microsoft’s emissions rose 29 percent between 2020 and 2023. (Amazon’s and Microsoft’s cloud computing revenues were roughly triple Google’s in 2023 and thus their AI-related greenhouse case emissions  presumably were larger.)

Why it matters: Growing use of AI means greater consumption of energy. The tech giants’ ambitious emissions goals predate the rapid growth of generative AI, and their latest reports show that it’s time to rethink them. This adds urgency to already critical efforts to develop renewable and other low-emissions energy sources. 

We’re thinking: We applaud Google’s efforts to cut its carbon emissions and its transparency in issuing annual environmental reports. We’re somewhat relieved to note that, for now, data centers and cloud computing are responsible for 1 percent of the world’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions; a drop in the bucket compared to transportation, construction, or agriculture. Moreover, we believe that AI stands to create huge benefits relative to the climate impact of its emissions, and AI is one of the most powerful tools we have to develop low-carbon energy sources and boost energy efficiency throughout society. Continuing to improve the technology will help us develop lower-carbon energy sources and efficient ways to harness them.

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