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Data Centre Emissions Spotlighted in Latest Report by Google

Google’s 2024 Environmental Report reveals a significant 13% increase in GHG emissions over the past year, largely attributed to AI and data centre energy consumption. This finding raises critical questions about the sustainability of AI and data centres.

In the report's introduction, Google CSO Kate Brandt and Benedict Gomes, SVP of Learning & Sustainability, stated:

“In spite of the progress we are making, we face significant challenges that we’re actively working through. In 2023, our total GHG emissions increased 13% year-over-year, primarily driven by increased data centre energy consumption and supply chain emissions. A sustainable future requires systems-level change, strong government policies, and new technologies. We’re committed to collaboration and playing our part, every step of the way.”

Despite the alarming headline figure, the report also includes positive developments:

  • Achieving at least 90% carbon-free energy in 10 grid regions and maintaining a global average of 64% carbon-free energy.

  • Contracting 4GW of clean energy generation capacity, more than any previous year.

  • AI-powered fuel-efficient routing reducing 2.9 million metric tons of GHG emissions, equivalent to removing 650,000 cars from the road.

  • Nearly doubling the water replenishment portfolio, replenishing an estimated 1 billion gallons of water.

  • Achieving 100% plastic-free packaging for Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro.

However, the 13% year-on-year increase in GHG emissions, marking a 48% rise since 2019, remains a focal point of concern.

The Pros and Cons of AI and Data Centres

While AI and the data centres required to handle it are here to stay, Google has made efforts to mitigate the environmental impact. Brandt and Gomes highlighted:

“We know that scaling AI and using it to accelerate climate action is just as crucial as addressing the environmental impact associated with it. To help minimise our environmental footprint, we’ve built world-leading efficient infrastructure for the AI era, including Trillium, our sixth-generation Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), which is over 67% more energy-efficient than TPU v5e. We’ve also identified tested practices that our research shows can, when used together, reduce the energy required to train an AI model by up to 100 times and reduce associated emissions by up to 1,000 times. All these practices are used at Google today.”

They noted that Google-owned and operated data centres are, on average, approximately 1.8 times as energy-efficient as a typical enterprise data centre.

“AI holds immense promise to drive climate action. In fact, AI has the potential to help mitigate 5–10% of GHG emissions by 2030.”

The report details how Google is advancing climate action through AI in three key areas:

  1. Organising Information: AI-powered fuel-efficient routing analyzes traffic, terrain, and a vehicle’s engine to suggest the most efficient route, reducing more than 2.9 million metric tons of GHG emissions since late 2021.

  2. Improving Prediction: Google developed a global hydrological AI model combined with publicly available data to predict floods up to seven days in advance in over 80 countries.

  3. Better Optimisation: Green Light, an AI-based tool, helps city traffic engineers optimise traffic light timing to reduce stop-and-go traffic and fuel consumption.

Brandt and Gomes stated: “Through our products, we aim to help individuals, cities, and other partners collectively reduce 1 gigaton of carbon equivalent emissions annually by 2030, and we’ll continue to develop technologies that help communities adapt to the effects of climate change.”

Uncertainty Ahead

The AI section of the report, titled "Boldly Accelerating Climate Action with AI," highlights the challenges ahead:

"In 2023, our total data centre electricity consumption grew by 17%, despite maintaining a 100% global renewable energy match. As Google’s infrastructure continues to drive the digital transition, providing numerous economic benefits worldwide, we anticipate this trend to persist. However, we view our expanding infrastructure as an opportunity to foster the innovations and investments necessary for powering a low-carbon economy."

The report underscores the complexity and evolving nature of predicting AI's future environmental impact: “Our historical trends likely don't fully capture AI's future trajectory. AI is at an inflection point, with many factors influencing its ultimate impact, including the extent of AI adoption, our ability to mitigate its footprint, and the pace of continued innovation and efficiency.”

It calls for system-level changes to address challenges such as grid decarbonisation, evolving regulations, hard-to-decarbonise industries, and the availability of carbon-free energy.

“While we remain optimistic about AI’s potential to drive positive change, we’re also clear-eyed about its potential environmental impact and the collaborative effort required to navigate this evolving landscape.”

Commitment to Sustainability

Luke Elder, Lead of Sustainability Reporting at Google, shared on LinkedIn:

“After many months of collaboration with Googlers around the world, we're proud to share an update on our sustainability journey – the progress, the challenges, and our unwavering commitment to a more sustainable future. This year's report is a testament to the passion and dedication of our teams, who are working tirelessly to develop innovative solutions for a low-carbon, sustainable world."

He highlighted impactful initiatives: “From AI-powered flood forecasting to innovative carbon-free energy technologies, to sustainability features throughout Google's core products and a growing portfolio of water replenishment projects—we're making a real impact today.”

However, Elder also acknowledged the challenges ahead: “We’re honest about the challenges we face, including the growing energy demands of our operations, the computer-intensity of AI, and the need for systemic change. We believe in transparency and accountability, and we're committed to collaboration and playing our part, every step of the way.”

At CAFA, we empower membership organisations to support their member companies in taking decisive climate action and achieving net zero. We provide essential guidance, assist with sustainability reporting, and foster community learning to help organisations effectively meet their environmental commitments, addressing challenges similar to those highlighted in Google's recent environmental report.





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