Google’s CO2 emissions double: AI demands high environmental price

Water consumption also continues to increase

Google’s CO2 emissions double: AI demands high environmental price

Google’s CO2 emissions are skyrocketing. Emissions have nearly doubled in the last five years, and Google says this is due to the increased demand for AI.

Google’s annual environmental report provides insight into the impact of AI on data center energy consumption. It is often warned that AI is a huge consumer, requiring data centers to expand and find more environmentally friendly alternatives. Usually these distress calls come from predictions. Google is now sharing worrying figures about the real situation: over the past five years, CO2 emissions have increased 48 percent.

Last year, data centers emitted 14.3 million tons. The cause of the explosive growth is increased energy consumption due to the rise of AI. That caused an increase in fossil fuel consumption and, thus, CO2 emissions.

Far from climate goals

Investments in sustainable alternatives are needed. In that way, dependence on fossil fuels will decrease. Google already acted proactively on the problem and set up an offshore wind project in the Netherlands earlier this year. The project should decarbonize 90 percent of the energy used by Google’s data centers and offices in the Netherlands. The results will be visible in next year’s report. Initiatives to run data centers on cleaner energy were launched in Poland, Italy and Belgium at the same time.

While more sustainable solutions are being tinkered with, it appears that more investment will be needed to meet climate goals. Google has set the goal of operating completely climate-neutral by 2030. Microsoft also set the same goal, but it saw its carbon emissions rise 30 percent last year since 2020.

The report does not hide the fear these climate goals will be challenging to reach. “As we further integrate artificial intelligence into our products, emissions reductions may become a challenge due to the increasing energy demands resulting from the higher intensity of AI computations, and the emissions associated with the expected increase in our investments in technical infrastructure.”

No brake on expansion

Cloud providers are in a tricky situation because of the rise of AI. On the one hand, they want to invest in AI tools, and Google Cloud wants to gain market share in Europe by using the technology as a unique aspect compared to other cloud providers. On the other hand, there are legitimate concerns surrounding the energy consumption and environmental impact of such data centers.

Cloud providers see the complications but currently prefer to serve the customer. They want to offer AI, so cloud players are expanding existing European cloud regions and setting up new ones. Google is building a new data center in Winschoten, Netherlands, Microsoft is expanding existing infrastructure in Sweden, and AWS is busy in Italy for a possible expansion in Milan. In fact, these are just a few examples, as a new data center in Europe has been announced almost weekly by one of the parties in recent weeks. Clearly, the concerns are not putting the brakes on the construction of new sites.

Also read: AWS buys data center running on nuclear power: smart sustainability?

Increasing water consumption

The sudden increase in energy consumption by AI has claimed all the attention this year. Last year’s report highlighted figures on drinking water consumption. The report again offers insight into these figures, showing that 24 billion liters of water were consumed last year. The situation compared to last year (19.38 billion liters) appears to have worsened. Google Cloud wants to operate water neutrally by 2030 and, in time, even return 120 percent of its total water consumption.

As a first step toward this goal, Google Cloud will focus on using unpotable water. In new locations, further direct focus will be on water replenishment options.

To reduce water consumption, it is again important to find solutions to meet the energy needs of data centers in a sustainable way. At this moment water is used as a cooling agent for servers and rooms. “In fact, water cooling has been shown to help reduce energy consumption and associated CO2 emissions compared to air-based cooling,” the report states.

Challenging goals

Google Cloud still needs to continue to work hard to be climate-neutral and water-neutral by 2030. Other cloud providers are more careful in sharing the environmental impact of their data centers, but they will not be in a better situation. Every cloud player is working on AI and expanding facilities for it significantly. This technology consumes energy, for which water cooling may be a partial solution, but at the expense of drinking water resources.

Tip! Google Cloud uses 19.38 billion liters of drinking water, water neutral by 2030