AI has shattered Google’s carbon neutrality promise, with emissions rising 50% in five years

Google has abandoned its promise to achieve carbon neutrality after 17 years due to increases in emissions caused by the development of artificial intelligence, according to the tech giant’s latest environmental report.

Since 2007, Google has said it has purchased enough clean energy to cover most of the emissions generated by its data centers and buildings. However, as of 2023, Google will no longer “maintain operational carbon neutrality,” according to the report.

The company said this comes as Google’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by nearly 50% since 2019. It blamed the increase on “increased energy demand resulting from higher AI compute intensity,” as well as emissions related to broader infrastructure investments that AI requires.

Google is investing nearly $100 billion in AI over the next few years, said Demis Hassabis, CEO of Google DeepMind, the company’s AI development lab. The most visible results of that investment so far are the company’s AI overhauls in Search and Google’s Gemini, a large language model that could be used to power a variety of AI tools designed to compete with OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

But that investment comes at a cost, and the burden is primarily on the environment, said Nathan Truitt, vice president of climate finance at the nonprofit American Forest Foundation. Fortune.

“On an individual level, AI will certainly cause emissions to skyrocket for companies that are heavily invested in it,” Truitt said. “And it will lead to announcements like Google made where they have to recalibrate their climate goals.”

Net Zero vs Carbon Neutrality

The announcement doesn’t mean Google has given up on reducing emissions entirely. Instead, the company set a different goal in the report: achieving net zero emissions by 2030.

There is a fundamental difference between the goal of carbon neutrality and the goal of net zero emissions. Carbon neutrality refers to offsetting or neutralizing emissions through carbon removal activities, such as planting trees or buying carbon credits, without necessarily reducing emissions at the source. Truitt used the metaphor of someone trying to burn off excess calories through exercise alone, without changing their diet.

“In theory it would be fine, but in practice it’s very unlikely to work,” Truitt said.

In turn, achieving net zero emissions means first reducing emissions at source as much as possible (the “diet” part), and then offsetting the remaining emissions by removing carbon dioxide (the “exercise” part).

Truitt noted that this combination is “significantly more effective” and also extremely ambitious.

“It will require them to solve a lot of really tough technical, logistical, economic and financial challenges all at once, in a very short period of time,” Truitt said.

Focusing on carbon offsetting AND According to the report, Google hopes to have a “more reliable” and “scalable” impact on the environment by reducing greenhouse gases.

A net-zero emissions goal could also help Google avoid criticism from some experts over its carbon neutrality claims. Critics have questioned whether low-cost investments—such as paying villages to protect forests or plant a few thousand trees—can actually “offset” carbon emissions.

Despite the criticism, Truitt doesn’t want advocacy groups or organizations to be too hard on corporations that claim to be carbon neutral. It’s harder and riskier to try to do something about the environment than to do nothing; we shouldn’t punish companies that try to do something, he argued.

“Companies should be rewarded and given the opportunity to make statements about how they will use carbon offsets to address emissions,” Truitt said.

But he added that he hopes corporations will stop treating climate policy as a transaction and start playing a greater leadership role in it.

“If a company does everything right in terms of its specific carbon accounting policies but doesn’t use that platform to find a way to join the solution on systemic reform, then I think ultimately we have to consider its climate policy a failure,” Truitt said.

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