Google’s emissions goes up by 50% as demand for AI energy rises

Google’s goal of reducing its climate footprint is at risk as it increasingly relies on energy-hungry data centers to power its new artificial intelligence products. The tech giant revealed on Tuesday that its greenhouse gas emissions have climbed 48% over the past five years.

Google stated that electricity consumption by data centers and supply chain emissions were the primary contributors to the increase. The company’s annual environmental report showed a 13% rise in emissions in 2023 compared to the previous year, reaching 14.3 million metric tons.

The tech company, which has heavily invested in AI, acknowledged that its “extremely ambitious” goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2030 “won’t be easy.” It highlighted “significant uncertainty” around achieving this target, including the unpredictable future environmental impact of AI.

Since 2019, the base year for Google’s net zero goal, the company’s emissions have risen nearly 50%. Achieving net zero requires Google to remove as much CO2 as it emits.

The International Energy Agency estimates that data centers’ total electricity consumption could double from 2022 levels to 1,000 TWh (terawatt hours) by 2026, which is approximately Japan’s level of electricity demand. AI is projected to cause data centers to use 4.5% of global energy generation by 2030, according to research firm SemiAnalysis.

Data centers are essential for training and operating AI models like Google’s Gemini and OpenAI’s GPT-4, which powers the ChatGPT chatbot. Microsoft admitted this year that energy use related to its data centers was jeopardizing its “moonshot” target of being carbon negative by 2030. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, acknowledged in May that “the moon has moved” due to the company’s AI strategy.

Microsoft’s co-founder, Bill Gates, stated last week that AI would help combat the climate crisis because big tech is “seriously willing” to pay extra to use clean electricity sources to claim they are using green energy.

Big tech companies have become major purchasers of renewable energy to meet their climate goals. However, pledges to reduce CO2 emissions are now conflicting with pledges to heavily invest in AI products, which require significant energy for training and deployment in data centers. Additionally, carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and transporting computer servers and chips contribute to the environmental impact. Water usage is another factor in the AI boom, with one study estimating that AI could account for up to 6.6 billion cubic meters of water use by 2027 – nearly two-thirds of England’s annual consumption.

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