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Google just released numbers on AI and emissions — and they aren’t good

And as the artificial intelligence arms race wages on, the company expects emissions to keep going up.

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Published
July 2, 2024
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Photo credit: Aleksander Kalka / NurPhoto via Getty Images // AI-generated image credit: Gold Flamingo

Photo credit: Aleksander Kalka / NurPhoto via Getty Images // AI-generated image credit: Gold Flamingo

Google has invested more than $3 billion in renewables, and aggressively pursued a goal to run operations on 24/7 carbon-free energy. But the mad rush to scale artificial intelligence is quickly complicating all of that work.

Google’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by nearly 50% since 2019, and by 13% in 2023 alone, according to its latest environmental report. The company explicitly attributes the jump in large part to the energy consumption of its data centers, which devoured 17% more electricity in 2023 than in 2022 — raising questions about whether AI is incompatible with net-zero goals. 

The news of Google’s energy backslide comes on the heels of rival Microsoft’s own annual sustainability report. In May, Microsoft reported that it had seen a nearly 30% increase in emissions since 2020, again attributed to data center electricity consumption.

Microsoft’s report also detailed the company’s energy intensity — the amount of electricity the company consumes per dollar of revenue has increased by 20% since 2022. In an interview at the time of the report’s release, chief sustainability officer Melanie Nakagawa told Latitude Media that Microsoft doesn’t expect the growth of AI energy use to be “longitudinal,” and that the company is experimenting with more efficient model training.

Google didn’t report explicitly on its energy intensity, but instead shared the company’s carbon intensity — a related metric that captures greenhouse gas emissions, rather than energy consumption, per unit of revenue.

And in 2023, Google’s carbon intensity climbed to 11.4 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per million dollars of revenue. That’s up 101% since 2019, and up nearly 25% since 2022.

The report also outlines tactics the company is pursuing to better manage AI’s resource consumption, including techniques to make model training more efficient, and using more power efficient chips. (Though, as many in the industry have noted, more efficient chips and models likely just means companies can churn out more with the electricity they can get access to, not that they’ll use less.)

At the same time, the company said it expects its total emissions to continue to rise “before dropping toward our absolute emissions reduction target,” though the report doesn’t specify for how long, or by how much. However, by Google’s estimations, the trends of the last few years “likely don’t fully capture AI’s future trajectory.”

The report dropped at the same time news broke about native AI integration into the Pixel phone — a fact that highlights how integral AI is becoming to Google’s operations even as emissions rise. 

Both Microsoft and Google have set ambitious decarbonization targets. Microsoft has pledged to become carbon negative in the next decade, and to remove the equivalent of all historic emissions by 2050. Google wants to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, and to cut its emissions in half by 2030, compared to 2019.”

The companies are the first of their peers to admit how the AI boom is challenging those goals. While it’s difficult to project exactly how much data center energy use will expand in coming years, the rapid expansion of hyperscale data centers to accommodate AI is causing deep concern that large tech companies will continue to backslide on their climate commitments.

AWS, the third of the Big Three cloud computing companies, has yet to release its sustainability report for 2023.

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