Google’s carbon footprint balloons in its Gemini AI era

2024-07-02 15:30


An illustration of the Google logo.
Illustration: The Verge

Google’s greenhouse gas emissions have ballooned, according to the company’s latest environmental report, showing how much harder it’ll be for the company to meet its climate goals as it prioritizes AI.

Google has a goal of cutting its planet-heating pollution in half by 2030 compared to a 2019 baseline. But its total greenhouse gas emissions have actually grown by 48 percent since 2019. Last year alone, it produced 14.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution — a 13 percent year-over-year increase from the year before and roughly equivalent to the amount of CO2 that 38 gas-fired power plants might release annually.

The jump in planet-heating pollution primarily comes from data center energy use and supply chain emissions, according to Google’s environmental report. Data centers are notoriously energy-hungry — those used to train AI even more so. Electricity consumption, mostly from data centers, added nearly a million metric tons of pollution to the company’s carbon footprint in 2023 and represents the biggest source of Google’s additional emissions last year.

Google is in its Gemini era, redesigning Search with generative AI and injecting AI into its other products like so many other tech giants are racing to do these days. The company points to the potential climate costs those new tools could have in its environmental report.

“As we further integrate AI into our products, reducing emissions may be challenging due to increasing energy demands from the greater intensity of AI compute, and the emissions associated with the expected increases in our technical infrastructure investment,” the report says. Google’s data center electricity consumption alone grew by 17 percent in 2023, a “trend” it expects to continue in the future, according to the report. Already, Google estimates that its data centers accounted for up to 10 percent of global data center electricity consumption in 2023.

To try to minimize its environmental impact, Google says it’s trying to make its AI models, hardware, and data centers more energy-efficient. The company also has a goal of running on carbon pollution-free energy around the clock on each power grid it plugs into by 2030.

Today, the world’s data centers use around 1 percent of the world’s electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But with the AI industry booming, the IEA recently estimated that it could consume 10 times as much electricity in 2026 as it did last year. In the US, the country with the most data centers, that’s raised fears about the steep rise in electricity demand from AI overwhelming power grids and potentially keeping coal and gas plants around for longer than they would have otherwise.

Google’s not alone when it comes to AI placing corporate climate aims further out of reach. Microsoft’s greenhouse gas emissions were around 30 percent higher in its 2023 fiscal year than they were in 2020.