Google blames AI for rising emissions instead of net-zero | Climate Crisis News

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Google points to artificial intelligence and the demands it places on energy-hungry data centers as the cause of its growing emissions.

Three years ago, Google set out ambitious plans to tackle climate change by setting a goal of becoming “net zero” by 2030 — meaning it will not emit more climate-changing gases into the atmosphere than it removes.

But a report released by the company on Tuesday said it's far from reaching that goal.

Instead of declining, emissions are set to increase by 13 percent in 2023 compared to the previous year. Compared to the base year of 2019, emissions have soared by 48 percent.

Google blamed artificial intelligence and the demand it places on power-hungry data centers for its growth last year.

Burning coal or natural gas to generate electricity emits greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which warm the planet and cause extreme weather.

The company is undertaking one of the most significant climate change initiatives in its industry and is a recognized leader.

Lisa Sachs, director of the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment, said Google should make more efforts to partner with cleaner companies and invest in the power grid.

“The reality is that in terms of moving forward with the transition, we're way behind where we can be with the technology and resources we have today,” she said.

“Achieving a net-zero goal by 2030 is an incredibly ambitious goal,” Google's chief sustainability officer Kate Brandt told The Associated Press.

“We know this won't be easy, and our approach will need to continue to evolve,” Brandt added, “and will need to navigate many uncertainties, including uncertainties about the future of AI's impact on the environment.”

AI Power Demand

Some experts say the rapid expansion of data centers needed to run AI threatens the entire transition to clean electricity, a key part of the climate change effort. New data centers could delay the retirement of fossil-fuel-burning power plants or encourage the construction of new ones. Data centers are not only energy-hungry, they require high-voltage transmission lines and lots of water for cooling. They're also noisy.

These plants are often built where electricity prices are lowest, rather than in places where renewable energy sources like wind and solar are the primary energy source.

Global data center and AI power demand could double by 2026, according to the International Energy Agency.

The sustainability plans of other big tech companies have also been challenged by data center growth: Microsoft said in its May environmental sustainability report that data center growth had caused the company's emissions to increase 29% from a 2020 baseline.

Tech companies argue that while AI contributes to climate change, it also helps solve it.

For Google, that could mean using data to predict future floods or streamline traffic flow to save gas.

Amanda Smith, a senior scientist at the climate nonprofit Project Drawdown, said people who use AI — both large corporations and individuals simply creating memes — need to do so responsibly and only use energy when it benefits society.

“It's up to us as humans to look at how we're using it and ask why we're doing it,” Smith added. “If there's value, we can make sure those demands are met by clean energy sources.”

Google's emissions increased last year in part because the company's energy use increased: Emissions increased by 25,910 gigawatt-hours, up from the previous year and more than double the amount of energy it consumed just four years earlier. One gigawatt-hour is roughly the amount of energy released in an hour by a power plant that powers hundreds of thousands of homes.

On the positive side, as Google's consumption increases, so does its use of renewable energy.

In 2020, the company announced that it would use only clean energy to meet its massive electricity needs every hour of every day around the world by 2030. Last year, Google said it had achieved an average of 64 percent carbon-free energy in its data centers and offices around the world, and the company claims its data centers are 1.8 times more energy efficient than the industry average.

Sachs praised Google's ambition and sincerity, but said he hopes the company will join “the tougher conversations about how to accelerate clean energy amid the climate crisis and start making improvements before things get even worse.”

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