Generative AI is changing how people work, complete assignments, date, and create.
But the massive computer systems powering AI consume vast amounts of water and emit tons of carbon.
Even with green initiatives by big companies, the scale of the impact is expected to increase.
We're beginning to see how generative AI, like ChatGPT and Bard, are taking the workforce by storm — but a more significant impact is brewing as we adapt to more widespread adoption of the technology, environmentalists warn.
Insider previously reported AI is like a tidal wave prepared to crash over the economy, eliminating more jobs than we yet realize. And while the tech has far-reaching implications in academia, our dating lives, and how we create art, the massive computer systems and server farms needed to power AI contribute to the climate crisis through massive emissions and vast amounts of water consumption.
The information and communication technology industry, once lauded as a green example compared to significant sectors like agriculture and construction, uses up to 10% of the world's electricity and emits between 2 and 5% of the world's global carbon, according to statistics shared by the European Parliament.
That amount is expected to rise to 14% of global emissions by 2040, according to research published in the Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have calculated that the amount of energy used to train large AI models equates to roughly 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of approximately 300 round-trip flights between San Francisco and New York and almost five times the total emissions of the average car in its lifetime.
Though AI has been lauded as a possible solution to climate concerns, with the UN's 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claiming the tech will "increase energy efficiency" and "promote the adoption" of renewable energy, the industry has yet to contend with its actual impact to the environment.
Insider previously reported ChatGPT consumes a water bottle's worth of fresh water for every 20 to 50 prompts it is given because cooling water is flushed over hard-working servers to keep them at temperatures low enough to function.
When Insider asked ChatGPT about its own carbon footprint, the chatbot was indirect, replying that its impact "would be limited to the energy consumption of the computers and servers used to run me and process requests. The exact carbon footprint would depend on factors such as the energy sources used to power the computers and the efficiency of the data centers."
Though some major tech companies have rolled out green initiatives to combat their impact on the environment – such as Google's goal to replenish 120% of the water it consumes and Microsoft's aim to be carbon neutral by 2030 – critics argue their actions amount to creative marketing and aren't enough to combat the real impact on the climate and environment.
"There has been this long and concerted effort by the tech industry to make digital innovation seem compatible with sustainability," Adrienne Russell, co-director of the Center for Journalism, Media, and Democracy at the University of Washington, previously told Insider. "And it's just not."
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