AI’s Carbon Footprint May Imperil Global Climate Goals

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How big is AI’s carbon footprint? How fast is it growing? Can anything be done to curb it?

AI’s carbon footprint and energy use are growing rapidly and could undermine global climate change goals. Mitigating AI’s emissions will require a combination of corporate carbon reduction commitments, AI efficiency improvements, a shift to renewable energy, and government regulation.

Continue reading to learn how the growth of AI is affecting the environment.

AI’s Carbon Footprint Is Growing Quickly

AI language models like ChatGPT rely on vast networks of energy-intensive computer servers and hardware to operate. These systems consume significant electricity, leading to substantial carbon emissions and a sizable carbon footprint. 

Carbon footprints are important because carbon emissions are a key contributor to the greenhouse effect, which traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and accelerates climate change. And, although AI currently accounts for less than 1% of total carbon emissions, the AI market is predicted to expand ninefold by 2030.

Spotty AI Emissions Reporting 

Virtually no data exists on carbon emissions generated by popular AI models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Experts say that major technology companies including Microsoft, Google, and IBM have long underreported their carbon emissions—even well before AI’s rise. Nevertheless, some estimates of companies’ emissions do exist: 

The Problem With AI’s Carbon Footprint

Tech workers, researchers, and environmentalists warn that without a rapid, radical shift in AI system development that accounts for its environmental impact, the technology’s energy consumption will surpass that of the entire global workforce by 2025. At present: 

As AI’s popularity and energy demands grow, so will its carbon footprint—potentially imperiling global climate goals.

Addressing AI’s Carbon Footprint

AI companies and researchers assert that AI emissions, while substantial, can be mitigated through a range of measures. Steps that tech companies are taking and exploring to address AI emissions include:

AI Is Guzzling Water Too

On top of AI’s carbon footprint, AI systems like ChatGPT require vast amounts of computing power to analyze human language patterns and generate coherent text. This intensive process generates enormous heat that must be dissipated to prevent computer shutdowns. Data centers—the physical facilities that house servers and storage that underpin ChatGPT and other chatbots—frequently use water cooling systems to regulate temperatures. Water is the cheapest way to cool servers.  

How Much Water Are AI Systems Using?

Experts say that historically, tech firms have declined to share details about their water consumption in individual centers, citing these data as trade secrets. A 2022 survey revealed that just 39% of data centers even monitored their water use—a 12% decrease from 2021. 

However, companies like Miocrosoft and Google have begun sharing information about their water use recently, reporting 34% and 20% spikes in water consumption between 2021 and 2022—primarily to cool AI systems housed in data centers

Google used 5.6 billion gallons of water last year—roughly the amount needed for 37 golf courses.

Looking Ahead 

Some experts say that reducing AI’s carbon footprint depends on companies’ priorities in the coming years. Future AI models could be designed to be more energy-efficient than they are now, and companies could substantially reduce data centers’ energy use and emissions by optimizing resources such as location, type of power they use, and time of day they operate. Whether companies pursue these avenues vigorously remains to be seen. 

Others caution that even with promises from companies like Microsoft, Google, and Meta to reduce AI carbon emissions through such changes, achieving their stated targets could take years.

AI’s Carbon Footprint May Imperil Global Climate Goals

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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