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Google’s CO2 emissions double: AI demands high environmental price

Google’s CO2 emissions double: AI demands high environmental price
Google’s CO2 emissions double: AI demands high environmental price

Google’s carbon emissions are exploding. Emissions have almost doubled in the last five years. According to Google, this is due to the increased demand for AI.

Google’s annual environmental report provides insight into the impact of AI on data center energy consumption. It is often warned that AI is a huge consumer, forcing data centers to expand and find greener alternatives. Usually, these distress calls are based on predictions. Google is now sharing worrying figures on the real situation: Over the past five years, CO2 emissions have increased by 48 percent.

Last year, data centers emitted 14.3 million tons of CO2. The reason for the explosive growth is the increased energy consumption due to the rise of AI. This led to an increase in fossil fuel consumption and thus an increase in CO2 emissions.

Far from climate targets

Investments in sustainable alternatives are needed. This will reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Google has already responded proactively to the problem and launched an offshore wind project in the Netherlands earlier this year. The project aims to decarbonize 90 percent of the energy consumption of Google’s data centers and offices in the Netherlands. The results will be visible in next year’s report. At the same time, initiatives have been launched in Poland, Italy and Belgium to run data centers on clean energy.

While more sustainable solutions are being developed, it seems that more investment will be needed to meet climate goals. Google has set itself the goal of becoming completely carbon neutral by 2030. Microsoft has also set the same goal, but its CO2 emissions have increased by 30 percent in the last year since 2020.

The report does not hide the fear that these climate targets will be difficult to achieve. “As we increasingly integrate artificial intelligence into our products, reducing emissions could become a challenge, as energy needs increase due to the higher intensity of AI calculations and emissions are linked to the expected increase in our investments in technical infrastructure.”

No brake on expansion

Cloud providers are in a difficult situation due to the rise of AI. On the one hand, they want to invest in AI tools, and Google Cloud wants to gain market share in Europe by using the technology as a differentiator from other cloud providers. On the other hand, there are legitimate concerns about the energy consumption and environmental impact of such data centers.

Cloud providers see the complications, but currently prefer to serve the customer. They want to offer AI, so cloud players are expanding existing European cloud regions and setting up new ones. Google is building a new data center in Winschoten in the Netherlands, Microsoft is expanding existing infrastructure in Sweden, and AWS is busy in Italy with a possible expansion in Milan. In fact, these are just a few examples, because in recent weeks a new data center in Europe has been announced almost weekly by one of the parties. Obviously, the concerns are not slowing down the construction of new sites.

Also read: AWS buys nuclear-powered data center: smart sustainability?

Increasing water consumption

The sudden increase in energy consumption caused by AI has attracted all the attention this year. Last year’s report highlighted figures on drinking water consumption. The report again offers insight into these figures and shows that 24 billion liters of water were consumed last year. The situation compared to the previous year (19.38 billion liters) seems to have worsened. Google Cloud aims to be water neutral by 2030 and even reduce 120 percent of its total water consumption over time.

As a first step toward achieving this goal, Google Cloud will focus on the use of non-potable water and will also focus on water replenishment options at new locations.

In order to reduce water consumption, it is in turn important to find solutions to meet the energy needs of data centers in a sustainable way. Currently, water is used as a coolant for servers and rooms. “In fact, water cooling has been shown to help reduce energy consumption and associated CO2 emissions compared to air-based cooling,” the report says.

Ambitious goals

Google Cloud must continue to work hard to be carbon neutral and water neutral by 2030. Other cloud providers are more cautious in disclosing the environmental impact of their data centers, but will not be in a better situation. Every cloud player is working on AI and significantly expanding their facilities for it. This technology consumes energy, for which water cooling can be a partial solution, but at the expense of drinking water resources.

Tip! Google Cloud consumes 19.38 billion liters of drinking water and is water neutral by 2030

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