AI’s Impact on the Environment: Why It’s a Growing Concern

There’s an urgent need for sustainable practices and regulations to mitigate the effects of the impact of AI



While many believe that artificial intelligence (AI) can help us reduce our environmental impact, a recent study from Yale School of Environment paints a different picture. It shows that AI actually has a significant energy footprint and can harm the environment in various ways, such as using a lot of water and electricity.

The study warns that as AI becomes more widespread, its environmental impact will only increase. Jeremy Tamanini, founder of Dual Citizen, a platform that helps governments, companies, and investors improve sustainability using AI, says that if we don’t regulate AI’s carbon footprint, it could seriously affect our efforts to achieve sustainable development goals and reduce emissions.

“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.

The Growing Concern

While AI offers incredible potential, its rapid growth poses environmental challenges, especially concerning water usage. A study by Yale found that ChatGPT-3 alone can consume up to half a litre of water for just 10 to 50 responses. This high-water demand is due to the need to cool the equipment that powers AI systems.

Tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Apple use millions of litres of fresh water in their data centres to ensure the smooth functioning of their AI platforms. In 2022, Google alone consumed nearly 20 billion litres of fresh water for cooling. As these companies expand their data centre operations globally, the strain on freshwater resources, particularly in countries like India, is expected to increase significantly.

Tamanini emphasized that as AI becomes more integrated into daily life, it should be considered as a factor that increases energy and resource consumption. Failure to address these issues could hinder global progress on sustainable development and emission reduction targets.

In contrast, the UN’s 2023 World Water Development report warns of an impending global water shortage, with billions of people already facing water scarcity. This underscores the urgent need to address the water consumption of AI and other technologies to ensure a sustainable future.

Lack of Data

Apart from needing a lot of water to operate, AI also creates carbon emissions from using non-renewable energy, according to a report from Yale. However, it’s currently not possible to figure out exactly how much carbon is emitted with each AI prompt, platform, or series.

Dr. S Faizi, an ecologist, United Nations environmental negotiator, and winner of the 2024 Planet Earth Awards, emphasized the urgent need for public attention to this issue.

“The amount of water that data centers consume is alarming and needs immediate public attention. When you factor in the water and carbon costs of manufacturing the computers and systems used in these centers, along with the long-term electronic waste they generate, the environmental impact is staggering,” he said.

Did you know that there are about 9,000 to 11,000 cloud data centers worldwide, with more being built? These centers use a huge amount of electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2026, these data centers could use as much as 1,000 terawatts of electricity, which is about the same as Japan uses now.

Another report, by the International Electrotechnical Commission, says that by 2027, the AI industry might use as many resources and as much energy as a country the size of the Netherlands!

Despite all this talk, we actually don’t have much specific data on how much AI impacts the environment when it comes to water, carbon emissions, or electricity. Because there are no rules or standards, most tech companies don’t share exact information about how much energy their AI uses. This makes it hard to come up with solid plans to manage AI’s energy use.

“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

In 2024, there’s a growing focus on making AI more sustainable. Efforts are underway to understand and reduce its energy impact.

Tamanini highlighted the importance of breaking down AI-related emissions into different categories. This transparency can help us understand AI’s environmental impact better and find ways to manage it.

The IEC and ISO are collaborating to release the world’s first report on sustainability standards for AI. This report will cover various environmental aspects of AI, such as energy and water consumption, carbon footprint, waste, life cycle, and supply chain. The goal is to make these aspects of AI visible to users so they can make informed decisions.

However, Dr. Faizi believes that current efforts may not be enough to prevent environmental harm from AI. He sees this as part of a larger trend of exceeding nature’s limits, which could lead to the extinction of industrial civilization.

“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 eco-friendlier, 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 wrap up with a more relatable example, India recently gave the nod in a Cabinet meeting to a plan exceeding Rs 10,000 crore for the next five years. This plan involves the government setting aside funds to help private companies that want to establish AI computing capacity in the country.

Switching gears, the World Bank has highlighted that India faces significant water stress, despite being home to 18% of the world’s population, it only has access to 4% of the world’s water resources.

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