AI expansion vs achieving climate goals

Google is currently grappling with a major dilemma: finding a way to maintain its impressive progress in AI technology while also staying true to its goal of minimising carbon emissions.

In its 2024 Environmental Report, Google discloses a concerning trend: a staggering 50% surge in emissions over the past five years. This surge can be attributed mainly to the heightened energy requirements of its AI-powered data centres. This alarming surge threatens to derail Google’s ambitious climate goals and underscores a growing conflict between technological progress and environmental sustainability.

The report, reflecting Google’s progress toward meeting its environmental goals last year, shows that the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions increased from 9.7 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2019 to 14.3 million metric tons in 2023. The figure is 48% higher than in 2019, the company said, and 13% higher than in 2022. Google attributed the rise mainly to the energy consumption of its data centres, which power AI applications such as Google Search, Google Assistant, and various cloud services, as well as emissions from its supply chain

“AI is at an inflection point, and many factors will influence its ultimate impact—including the extent of AI adoption, our ability to mitigate its footprint, and the pace of continued innovation and efficiency,” the report stated. For context, as with most Big Tech, Google’s commitment to sustainability has been a cornerstone of its corporate ethos. The tech giant has pledged to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030, aiming to set a precedent for the industry. 

However, the latest figures cast a shadow over these aspirations. AI technologies, especially those that involve deep learning and large language models, are notoriously energy-intensive. Training these models requires vast computational power, translating into substantial energy use.

“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,” Google admitted in the report.

This trend poses a significant challenge to Google’s sustainability objectives. The paradox here is striking: the technologies that promise to revolutionise industries, enhance efficiencies, and drive innovation also contribute to an escalating environmental crisis. Google’s case is not unique. Other tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon also grapple with the dual pressures of advancing AI and reducing their environmental impact. 

However, Google’s recent spike in emissions is a stark reminder of the urgent need for a balanced approach. “System-level changes are needed to address challenges such as grid decarbonisation, evolving regulations, hard-to-decarbonise industries, and the availability of carbon-free energy,” the report stated. To reconcile its AI ambitions with its climate goals, Google admits that it must intensify its efforts in several areas. 

First, there needs to be a greater emphasis on developing more energy-efficient AI models. Advances in AI chip design, such as Google’s Tensor Processing Units (TPUs), are a step in the right direction. Still, more must be done to optimise AI algorithms’ energy efficiency. Research into low-power AI and quantum computing could provide breakthroughs in this regard.

Second, Google should continue to invest heavily in renewable energy sources. While the company has made significant strides in purchasing renewable energy, achieving a 24/7 carbon-free energy supply remains a formidable challenge. The 2024 Environmental Report emphasises, “Our path to 24/7 carbon-free energy is fraught with challenges, but it is a critical component of our sustainability strategy. We are committed to overcoming these obstacles through innovation and collaboration.”

The International Energy Agency estimates that data centres’ total electricity consumption could double from 2022 levels to 1,000TWh (terawatt hours) in 2026, approximately Japan’s level of electricity demand. Calculations by research firm SemiAnalysis reckon that AI will result in data centres using 4.5% of global energy generation by 2030. Frankly, Google is not the first major technology company to point to the rapid expansion of AI as a barrier to reaching environmental goals. 

In May, Microsoft Corp. announced that its carbon emissions have increased by 30% since 2020 as the business increased its investment in AI. The rise made the company’s ambition of achieving net-zero emissions by 2030 considerably more complicated than when it announced its carbon-negative goal.

In conclusion, most tech giants’ ambitious AI-driven future is at odds with their environmental goals. This presents a formidable challenge that requires innovative solutions and unwavering commitment. Google and Microsoft’s recent environmental report provides a sobering reminder of the stakes.  

As tech giants like Google strive to lead the AI revolution, it must also lead in forging a sustainable path forward. The industry can only achieve its vision of a carbon-free future by addressing these dual priorities while continuing to innovate.

(Photo by Solen Feyissa)

See also: Google ushers in the “Gemini era” with AI advancements

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Tags: ai, artificial intelligence, Google, machine learning, report

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