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Google emissions rise nearly 50% in five years as AI usage increases

Google emissions rise nearly 50% in five years as AI usage increases
Google emissions rise nearly 50% in five years as AI usage increases

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Due to the expansion of the data centers that power artificial intelligence systems, the company’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 48 percent over the past five years, calling into question the company’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030.

The Silicon Valley company’s pollution will total 14.3 million tons of carbon equivalent in 2023, up 48 percent from its 2019 baseline and 13 percent since last year, Google said in its annual environmental report on Tuesday.

Google said the increase underscored “the challenge of reducing emissions” while the company is investing in building out large language models and associated applications and infrastructure, and acknowledged that “the future environmental impacts of AI” are “complex and difficult to predict.”

Kate Brandt, chief sustainability officer, said the company remains committed to the 2030 target, but stressed that the goal was “extremely ambitious”.

“We expect our emissions to continue to rise before they reach our target,” said Brandt.

She added that Google is working “very hard” to reduce its emissions, including by signing clean energy contracts. There is also a “tremendous opportunity for climate solutions enabled by AI,” Brandt said.

Bar chart showing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) showing that Google's greenhouse gas emissions have increased by almost half since 2019.

While major tech giants like Google, Amazon and Microsoft have announced plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in artificial intelligence, climate experts have raised concerns about the environmental impact of these power-intensive tools and systems.

In May, Microsoft admitted that its emissions had increased by almost a third since 2020, largely due to data center construction. However, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also argued last week that AI would help advance climate solutions.

Meanwhile, constraints on energy generation and transmission are already posing a challenge for companies looking to scale up the new technology. Analysts at Bernstein said in June that AI would “double the growth of U.S. electricity demand, and total consumption could exceed current supply over the next two years.”

In its report on Tuesday, Google said its energy-related emissions in 2023 – which mainly come from data center power consumption – increased 37 percent year-on-year, accounting for a quarter of its total greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions in Google’s supply chain – the largest part of it, accounting for 75 percent of total emissions – also rose 8 percent. Google said they would “continue to rise in the near future,” partly due to the expansion of the infrastructure needed to run AI systems.

Google has committed to achieving net zero for its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to using 24/7 carbon-free energy on every network it operates by the same date.

Bar chart showing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e), showing that most of Google's emissions come from energy and supply chain.

However, the company warned in its report on Tuesday that the “termination” of some clean energy projects over the course of 2023 had reduced the amount of renewable energy it had access to.

Meanwhile, the power consumption of the company’s data centers has “outpaced” Google’s ability to bring more clean energy projects online in the US and Asia-Pacific.

Google’s data center electricity use increased 17 percent in 2023, and the company estimated it would account for about 7 to 10 percent of global data center electricity use. Google said the company’s data centers also used 17 percent more water in 2023 than the previous year.

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