Saturday, June 15, 2024

The dark side of AI: Its growing environmental footprint

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Although it is widely believed that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) can help significantly reduce humanity’s environmental footprint, a recent study by Yale School of Environment sheds a darker light on the new-age technology’s energy use, especially in terms of immediate environmental impact. From massive water and electricity consumption to a lack of data on it, AI’s effect on our environment is all but flowery.

The study says, “One consequence of the explosion of artificial intelligence is clear: this technology’s environmental footprint is large and growing.”

Jeremy Tamanini, founder of Dual Citizen, a platform that works with international governments, ministries, private firms, and ESG investors to improve sustainability performance by leveraging data and AI, said that AI’s carbon footprint, if left unregulated, can have dire impacts on SDG and emission reduction targets.

“AI systems will become increasingly embedded in the global economy in the next decade. They should be treated like any other factor that increases energy and resource consumption. If not, these systems will erode our global progress around SDG and emission reduction targets,” he said.

A mounting concern

While there are several pressing environmental concerns in the use and growth of AI, excessive water consumption stands as the most glaring.

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According to the Yale study, 10 to 50 responses from ChatGPT-3 use up around half a litre of water. The explanation is simple: AI computing systems require large amounts of water to keep the equipment functional – the bigger the AI system, the higher the water consumption.

However, it cannot just use any water. Tech giants use millions of litres of fresh water in running AI platforms in their data centres. To maintain the clean interiors of the delicate electronics powering AI, the water used for cooling is also required to be clean and free of bacteria. As such, essentially, water that is used for cooking, drinking, and washing is taken up by tech companies for its AI services.

The Yale report further notes that according to a study, in 2022 (the year that saw ChatGPT and AI in general skyrocket), Google alone consumed nearly 20 billion litres of fresh water for cooling. In the same year, Google used 20 percent more water for its data centres; while Microsoft’s water consumption increased by 34 percent as compared to the previous year. As the number of data centres by such tech giants around the world increases and AI is expected to be embedded in all aspects of life, the freshwater stock is likely to be gravely hit, especially in countries like India.

While Microsoft holds around 300 data centres in the world including in India, Google has 25 globally and Apple runs 10 – numbers which are already in the making to grow.

As AI becomes a part of everyday life, it should be treated like any other factor that increases energy and resource consumption, said Tamanini.

“AI systems will become increasingly embedded in the global economy in the next decade. If not, these systems will erode our global progress around SDG and emission reduction targets,” he added.

On the other hand, the 2023 World Water Development report by the UN states the world is looking at an “imminent risk of global water shortage” with two to three billion people worldwide fighting the issue.

AI and the environment: A lack of data

Other than the large amounts of water AI needs to be running, the technology is also responsible for direct carbon emissions from non-renewable energy, notes the report by Yale. However, it is not yet possible to calculate how much carbon is emitted with each prompt, platform, or series.

Dr S Faizi, ecologist, United Nations (UN) environmental negotiator, and a winner of the 2024 Planet Earth Awards noted that the issue requires immediate public attention.

“The volume of water the data centres are gulping demands urgent public attention. Now, add the water and carbon costs of manufacturing the computer and related systems used here and further add the long-lasting electronic waste that these centres will discard, the environmental costs are mind-boggling,” he said.

Moreover, there are roughly around 9,000 to 11,000 cloud data centres in the world (with more under construction) that consume a staggering amount of electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, these data centres’ electricity consumption by 2026 will reach up to 1,000 terawatts – roughly equivalent to Japan’s current total electricity consumption.

Also, a report by the London-based International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) states that according to a recent study, by 2027, the AI industry could be using up as much natural resources and energy as a country the size of the Netherlands.

Despite such discourse, in terms of water, carbon emission, or electricity, there is a lack of data on specifically AI’s overall environmental impact. In the absence of standards or regulations, most tech companies have been either reporting arbitrary data or withholding exact information, on their AI’s environmental footprint, reported Yale. Due to the lack of such vital information, the development of “actionable tactics” to measure and oversee AI’s energy use has been difficult.

“We don’t know yet as there are no comprehensive studies or analyses to refer to. But my intuition would be that the efficiency gains and environmental costs basically cancel each other out right now. But this could change dramatically in the future in either direction. The challenge is to ensure that efficiency gains improve rapidly while the associated environmental footprint declines just as quickly,” said Tamanini.

The dawn of sustainable AI

However, 2024 might see a change in that as proposals for “sustainable AI” are in development, with a goal of getting more access to information on AI’s energy impact.

On the need for accessing data on the evolving technology, Tamanini noted the importance of disaggregating AI-related Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. “This data transparency will provide more clarity on the environmental footprint of AI and how we can best manage it,” commented the DualCitizen co-founder.

In a joint push, the IEC and the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) are set to release this year the world’s first report with international standards for sustainability in AI. The report is expected to cover all areas where AI coincides with the environment – energy and water consumption, carbon footprint, waste, the system’s life cycle, and supply chain. Project editor Harm Ellens confirmed that a primary goal of this report is to make these aspects of AI visible to end users so informed decisions can be made.

However, according to Dr Faizi, efforts to avert environmental calamity from such technology are perhaps not enough. He said, “This is part of the capitalist trajectory of living beyond nature’s limits, a trajectory that would eventually culminate in the extinction of the industrial civilization itself.”

“I don’t think there will be a going back on AI technology, no going back on the capitalist mode of extraction, production, and consumption which has worsened to become induced consumption, therefore the environmental crisis that we are in will only deepen in the coming years. The efforts to avert these are too modest for the challenge before us.”

In terms of making the technology more eco-friendly, Tamanini further said, “System creators can follow best practices to make AI more sustainable. One example is the Google “4M Approach. But where AI stands in the sustainable future of technology will depend upon regulators and the extent to which system creators are required to report and limit their AI environmental footprint.”

To conclude with something local and tangible, in a recent Cabinet meeting, India approved a plan worth over Rs 10,000 crore for the next five years, under which the government will allocate funds towards subsidising private companies looking to set up AI compute capacity in the country. On the other hand, the World Bank has also reported that India is currently one of the most “water-stressed” countries with 18 percent of the world’s population and 4 percent of the world’s water resources.

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