Google's push into AI puts climate goals at risk, but they can do better

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Google is falling far short of its climate goals, and in some ways even going backwards: In its 2024 Environmental Report released this week, the company was forced to admit that its greenhouse gas emissions have increased 48% since 2019, largely due to the energy demands of AI.

This story is CNET ZeroThis series documents the effects of climate change and explores what is being done about the problem.

The Silicon Valley tech giant, which aims to be net-zero by 2030, acknowledged that the surge in emissions was “primarily due to increased energy consumption in our data centers.” Google's data centers, which power online services around the world, saw a 17% increase in electricity consumption last year alone.

With the AI ​​revolution only just beginning and energy demand expected to continue to soar, even Google, which has aggressively promoted and deployed the Gemini AI system, questions whether the goal can realistically be expected to be met. “As AI is further integrated into products, reducing emissions may become more difficult,” the company said in the report.

Google isn't alone in this struggle: Microsoft also saw its emissions rise last year due to the energy demands of AI. And as more companies expand their AI products, their energy demands will rise as well. This equation involves new entrants to the tech industry, such as ChatGPT-maker OpenAI, as well as big names like Apple, which has long prided itself on its environmental commitments.

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All of this raises questions for people who use technology: Is AI a clean technology that we should embrace in our lives? Is it worth relying too heavily on a technology that regularly malfunctions, has hallucinations, and fails to live up to our expectations, and that could worsen the climate crisis?

Advances in generative AI, the technology behind ChatGPT, Gemini, Dall-E, Perplexity, and other chatbot systems, have sparked a lively debate on the Internet about whether AI poses an existential risk to humanity. However, these debates are often focused on philosophical, sometimes esoteric questions about the concept of intelligence. In comparison, the climate crisis is an immediate threat to human security, affecting our homes, health, and livelihoods in the form of heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, and floods.

Google and other major tech companies have ambitious environmental goals, and rightly so: the constant production of data around the world requires vast amounts of energy. But with the impacts of the climate crisis being felt in weather patterns, rising sea levels, and biodiversity loss, it's crucial that a growing tech industry isn't reliant on fossil fuels for its energy supply.

Climate scientists have made a clear assessment of both the root causes and solutions of the climate crisis. For centuries, humanity has been emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which has resulted in the Earth warming and making it increasingly inhospitable for any life. If we want to ensure a livable Earth for our future selves and the next generations, we need to stop doing that and switch to using clean, renewable energy.

And we have the solutions to make that happen, so in that sense there is hope, but all polluting companies need to do their part by eliminating their emissions.

Google's climate change challenge

Google says it wants to contribute, but it needs to show us how serious it is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions first and foremost.

Google's goal of net-zero emissions by 2030 shows that by prioritizing the near future, the company understands the urgency of addressing the climate crisis (many companies have set goals for 2050 and beyond). But the goal shouldn't be celebrated in advance: If Google can't keep its environmental commitments, it will be a clear demonstration of how it values ​​profits over the planet.

Last year alone, Google's greenhouse gas emissions increased 13% year over year. If we take Google seriously, this number should be decreasing, not increasing. Some of these emissions come from parts of Google's value chain and are therefore outside of our direct control. That's why Google acknowledges in the report that these emissions are particularly difficult to address.

The company has detailed its path to net zero in a lengthy environmental report, but it will only know if it's making progress when the numbers start to line up with its plans — and at some point it may have to make sacrifices to reach its goal.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

Many optimistic tech companies, including Google, believe that AI could help solve the climate crisis by accelerating mitigation and supporting adaptation. This may indeed be true. But as scientists have said time and time again, reducing emissions is the only credible way to tackle climate change. For Google and its allies, it may be best to start there.

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