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The Environmental Cost of Generative AI


One of the cost of using generative AI is an environmental one. With data centres around the world already accounting for one percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, this will only increase with the use of generative AI. As it relates to just search tools (e.g. Bing or Google), Martin Bouchard, cofounder of Canadian data centre company QScale, believes that, based on his reading of Microsoft and Google’s plans for search, adding generative AI to the process will require “at least four or five times more computing per search” at a minimum.

Microsoft has committed to become carbon negative by 2030. According to the Microsoft 2022 sustainability report, there are reductions in their scope 1 and 2 emissions of approximately 17%. However, these figures include carbon removal purchases.

Microsoft, along with several other companies have chosen to utilise carbon removal as a strategy in their net 0 goals. In their last sustainability report, Microsoft advised that they have purchased 1.5 million metric tonne of carbon removal – the equivalent of the energy use of 189,000 homes for the year. The carbon emissions measure without the impact of carbon removal has not been disclosed.

Unfamiliar with carbon removal? Carbon removal refers to the removal of emissions from the atmosphere via various techniques and often includes storing it underground. I recommend reading up on this as it is often mixed up with Carbon Offsetting which refers to the reduction of emissions or investment in environmental friendly initiatives to make up for emissions still being expelled.

The long term strategy of Microsoft is to have their data centres running 100 percent on renewable energy by 2030 and they already have gains in this area with their Irish based data centres. They forecast that their data centres in Ireland will be fully running on renewable energy by 2025 through projects supported by PPAs (Power Purchase Agreement). In fact, Microsoft were the second largest corporate buyer of PPAs in 2021.

The world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy is Google. In fact, Google’s data centres are currently powered by wind, solar, and other clean sources of energy which makes them powered entirely by renewable energy. Through their efforts, Google Cloud saved 6.5 million metric tons of carbon emissions (the equivalent of removing 1.3 million cars off the road) in 2021.

While companies are investing in renewable energy for their data centres, there is also a focus on other methods such as creating a more efficient and scalable framework for LLMs which produce less energy.

It should be clear that the onus on sustainable AI also falls to us as users, designers and implementers. We have the responsibility to:

  • ensure that models we use have a low environmental impact and challenge those that aren’t.
  • encourage sensible use the technology. Many use cases being built or tested are not related to generative AI and could in fact be designed using traditional AI.
  • design better solutions. Both Bing and Google automatically use generative AI in search via their new chat features and will present both search results as well as initiating chats. It would be less impactful on the environment if users were allowed to choose which feature they wanted to engage. Thinking about how AI will be used in solutions and where it will be used is necessary to ensure that the customer experience doesn’t suffer and calls to the different generative AI services are done only when necessary.

The mass take up of generative AI will have an impact on future years with more emissions to account for. The impact of climate change is widely documented and we know the need to ensure we all play our part in reducing the carbon footprint and fighting climate change in whatever way we can. This includes in our use of generative AI.

Thank you so much for reading my blog! I had a lot of help with this blog from my colleague Chris Lloyd Jones who provided valuable resources and general advice on the topic! He is an expert on this topic and you can hear his views and hear him speak as he moderates the session – Panel Data Centres and Open Technology – Building the “Patchwork Kilt future” at Open UK’s Open Technology for sustainability day.

This post was originally published on this site

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