Google emissions jump nearly 50% over five years as AI use surges

Mike Dean
March 28, 2023
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Google's greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed by 48% over the past five years, mainly due to the expansion of its data centers, which are crucial for supporting AI systems. This increase puts Google's ambitious commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2030 under scrutiny. In its latest environmental report, Google disclosed that its pollution levels in 2023 reached 14.3 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, marking a significant rise from its 2019 baseline and a 13% increase from the previous year.

The surge in emissions underscores the challenge Google faces in balancing the reduction of emissions with the growing demand for AI infrastructure. Kate Brandt, Google’s chief sustainability officer, emphasized the company's continued dedication to the 2030 target but acknowledged the goal's "extremely ambitious" nature. Brandt noted that while the company expects emissions to rise in the near term, efforts are being made to reduce them through clean energy deals and AI-enabled climate solutions.

The environmental impact of AI is a growing concern among tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, all of whom have committed to substantial investments in AI. These power-intensive tools and systems have led to increased emissions. Microsoft, for instance, reported a nearly one-third rise in emissions since 2020, largely due to the construction of data centers. Despite this, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently argued that AI could play a crucial role in advancing climate solutions.

Energy generation and transmission constraints are already presenting challenges for companies expanding their AI technology. Analysts at Bernstein predict that AI could double the rate of U.S. electricity demand growth, potentially outstripping current supply within the next two years.

In Google's 2023 report, it was revealed that energy-related emissions, primarily from data center electricity consumption, rose by 37% year-on-year, constituting a quarter of the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, supply chain emissions, which make up 75% of Google's total emissions, increased by 8%. Google admitted that these emissions are likely to continue rising in the short term, partly due to the infrastructure build-out required for AI systems.

Google aims to achieve net-zero emissions across all its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The company also aspires to operate on carbon-free energy around the clock within each grid it uses by the same year. However, the 2023 report noted that the termination of some clean energy projects had reduced the amount of renewable energy available to Google. Moreover, the rapid increase in data center electricity consumption has outpaced Google’s efforts to bring more clean power projects online, especially in the U.S. and Asia-Pacific regions.

In 2023, Google’s data centers consumed 17% more electricity and 17% more water compared to the previous year. This significant increase highlights the ongoing environmental challenges faced by tech companies as they expand their AI capabilities.

For more details, visit Financial Times.

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