AI To Blame For Google's Rocketing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Casts doubt on search giant's 'Net Zero by 2030' goal

Tom Allen
clock • 3 min read
AI To Blame For Google's Rocketing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Google's annual sustainability report shows its greenhouse gas emissions have jumped almost 50% from 2019-2024, which it blames on increases from its datacenters and supply chain.

The company's 2024 Environmental Report shows a 48% rise in emissions over the last five years, casting doubt on the feasibility of Google's aim to be net zero by 2030.

Google emitted 14.3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) last year, noting, "As our business and industry continue to evolve, we expect our total GHG emissions to rise before dropping toward our absolute emissions reduction target."

Nowhere does Google say why it expects emissions to rise before falling, or how long that rise will last.

It adds, "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."

Scope 2 Sees Biggest Rise...

Google has moved to make its datacenters - the primary source of its Scope 2 emissions - more efficient, for example with a new generation of tensor processing units (TPU). However, the overall rise in AI use has more than countered those gains.

"Compared to 2022, our Scope 2 (market-based) emissions - which originate primarily from our datacentre electricity consumption - increased by 37%, despite considerable efforts and progress on carbon free energy [CFE].

"This was due to datacentre electricity consumption outpacing our ability to bring more CFE projects online, specifically in the United States and Asia-Pacific region; CFE contracts terminating prior to those projects becoming operational; and the current mismatch between our approach to CFE and the GHG Protocol's Scope 2 guidance."

That mismatch is because of differences in how Google and the GHG Protocol treat market boundaries (Google takes a global approach, the GHG Protocol is regional) and bundled/unbundled Energy Attribute Certificates (EACs). More information can be found on page 35 of the report.

... But Still Pales Compared To Scope 3

Although datacentrs represented the majority of Google's Scope 2 emissions, Scope 2 as a whole was only 24% of Google's total emissions. Scope 3 (indirect) emissions, from the up- and downstream supply chain, are a far larger source: 75% of the company's overall emissions, or 10.8 million tons of CO2e.

While Scope 2 emissions rose more than Scope 3 - 37% compared to 8% year-on-year - the massive difference in size between the two categories meant that more emissions were added to Scope 3 as an absolute measure.

Again, AI is the culprit. Google says, "We expect our Scope 3 emissions will continue to rise in the near term, in part due to increased capital expenditures and expected increases in our technical infrastructure investment to support long-term business growth and initiatives, particularly those related to AI."

With a single generative AI query consuming nearly 10 times the amount of power as a Google search - and Google, as well as other tech giants, integrating the technology into every area of their businesses - the gigantic power spike is unsurprising. It might also be unsustainable, with power grids around the world already struggling to cope with modern levels of demand.

Google also recently came up short in our analysis of cloud giants' water use: it consumes more than three times the amount of water as Microsoft to keep its datacentres cool.

This article orginally appeared on our sister site, Computing. 

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