AI Surge Drives 48% Increase in Google Emissions

Google’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2023 were 48% higher than in 2019, according to its latest environmental report. The tech giant attributes this surge to the increasing energy demands of its data centers, exacerbated by the explosive growth of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI-powered services require significantly more computing power—and consequently, more electricity—than standard online activities. This has prompted a series of warnings about the technology’s environmental impact. Google’s target is to reach net zero emissions by 2030, but it acknowledges that “as we further integrate AI into our products, reducing emissions may be challenging.”

In its 2024 Environmental Report, Google highlights the increasing energy demands from the greater intensity of AI compute. Data centers, essentially massive collections of computer servers, are crucial for AI operations. A generative AI system—such as ChatGPT—might use around 33 times more energy than machines running task-specific software, according to a recent study.

However, Google’s report also reveals significant global disparities in the impacts of its data centers. Most of the centers in Europe and the Americas obtain the majority of their energy from carbon-free sources. This contrasts with data centers in the Middle East, Asia, and Australia, which use far less carbon-free energy. Overall, Google states that about two-thirds of its energy is derived from carbon-free sources.

“If you actually go into a data center, it’s really hot and really noisy,” says Tom Jackson, professor of information and knowledge management at Loughborough University. “People don’t realize that everything they’re storing in the cloud is impacting their digital carbon footprint.” Prof. Jackson runs the Digital Decarbonisation Design Group, which aims to measure and find solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of data usage.

“Data providers must work closely with large organizations to help them move away from storing so much of their dark data,” he says. Dark data is data collected by organizations that is either used once or not at all. However, storing it on chips still consumes large amounts of energy even when it is not in use. “On average, 65% of the data an organization stores is dark data,” notes Prof. Jackson. He commends Google’s target of reaching net zero in its data centers by 2030 but acknowledges it will be “really tough.”

The increasing energy—and water—use of AI has prompted a series of warnings, especially as the sector is forecast to keep growing rapidly. The boss of the UK’s National Grid stated in March that the combination of AI and quantum computing would lead to a six-fold surge in demand in the next ten years.

For more information, read the full report on BBC News.