Home Sustainability Google's AI Tool Is Driving Efficiency but Also Increasing

Google's AI Tool Is Driving Efficiency but Also Increasing

Emissions. A new sustainability report from the tech giant says that its greenhouse gas emissions rose by almost half between 2019 and 2023.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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By Brian Contreras, Staff Reporter @_B_Contreras_

In the modern business landscape, embracing AI is trendy. So, too, is going green. But those two imperatives may contradict one another.

That's one of the concerns raised by Google's 2024 environmental report, released Tuesday, which explores how the Silicon Valley giant is keeping pace with its sustainability goals. The tech behemoth is one of the biggest players in the ongoing race to develop and commercialize generative artificial intelligence--the complex, energy-intensive software that's made investors swoon in recent years. However, the new report suggests that while AI could have a role to play in the fight against climate change, the tech may also be exacerbating the crisis.

"Scaling AI and using it to accelerate climate action is just as crucial as addressing the environmental impact associated with it," Google writes in its analysis.

The environmental impact has risen substantially. According to the report, Google's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2023 were 13 percent larger than the year before--and have increased 48 percent compared to 2019.

"This result was primarily due to increases in data center energy consumption and supply chain emissions," the company explains. "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."

A spokesperson for Google told Inc. that as the company integrates AI across its product line, "the distinction between AI and other workloads will not be meaningful"--thus the focus on metrics regarding data centers as a whole, which include AI, rather than AI's impact specifically.

According to the MIT Technology Review, both training and using an AI model has a sizable environmental impact thanks to the processing power required; for instance, generating a single AI photo sucks up as much energy as charging a dead smartphone. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund recently pitched carbon taxes as a means of internalizing those climate costs.

For Google, the growth in emissions will make it harder to achieve its stated goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2030, which it aims to do by cutting in half its Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions (that is, the emissions its responsible for either directly, through its energy consumption or through its value chain) relative to 2019, and then investing in "nature-based and technology-based carbon removal solutions" to account for the rest.

Nevertheless, the company has framed AI as a tool with which to reduce the threat of climate change, claiming in its report that the technology "has the potential to help mitigate" 5 to 10 percent of global emissions by 2030, per Boston Consulting Group, such as by making vehicle routes more efficient or optimizing traffic light patterns.

The tech giant also emphasized the strides it is already making in sustainability, including by running data centers that it says are, on average, about 1.8 times more energy efficient than competitors.

"AI has a critical enabling role to play in accelerating mitigation, supporting adaptation, and building foundational capabilities for the transition to a low-carbon future," the Google spokesperson said in an email. "The positive impact of AI could grow as it contributes to breakthroughs that open new pathways for climate action."

Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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