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AI drives 48% increase in Google emissions

Getty Images The Google logo outside a data centre in Germany

Google’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2023 were 48% higher than in 2019, according to its latest environmental report.

The tech giant puts it down to the increasing amounts of energy needed by its data centres, exacerbated by the explosive growth of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI-powered services involve considerably more computer power – and so electricity – than standard online activity, prompting a series of warnings about the technology’s environmental impact.

Google’s target is to reach net zero emissions by 2030 but it admits that “as we further integrate AI into our products, reducing emissions may be challenging.”

In its 2024 Environmental Report, Google says it is “due to increasing energy demands from the greater intensity of AI compute.”

Data centres are essentially massive collections of computer servers – and AI needs a huge amount of them.

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 large global disparities in the impacts of its data centres.

Most of the centres in Europe and the Americas get the majority of their energy from carbon-free sources.

This compares with data centres in the Middle East, Asia and Australia, which use far less carbon-free energy.

Overall, Google says about two thirds of its energy is derived from carbon-free sources.

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 said in March that the combination of AI and quantum computing would lead to a six-fold surge in demand in the next 10 years.

However, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently downplayed the environmental impact of AI.

Speaking in London last week, he suggested AI would increase electricity demand by between 2% and 6%.

“The question is, will AI accelerate a more than 6 per cent reduction? And the answer is: certainly,” he said, as reported by the Financial Times.