AI is impressive, but it poses a significant environmental challenge

Microsoft has published its annual report on “Environment and Sustainable Development” for 2022, analysing the environmental impact of its technologies based on artificial intelligence and cloud computing. The report shows how these innovations require high consumption of energy, water, and raw materials, putting the sustainability of the planet at risk. Microsoft has focused heavily on artificial intelligence and cloud computing, but these technologies have a high environmental cost, as evidenced by the company’s published report. It is estimated that by 2021, Microsoft will have used around 4.5 billion litres of water, an impressive amount – equal to 2,500 Olympic swimming pools – and proliferating: the company recognises that the consumption of water necessary to keep all its services rose by 34% in a year, reaching 6 billion litres.

The high environmental cost of AI and the Cloud

Water is mainly used to cool servers that host cloud applications and artificial intelligence models, which require a lot of computing power and generate a lot of heat. Additionally, the company emitted approximately 16 million tons of CO2 in 2021, a 12% increase compared to 2020. These emissions are due to the consumption of electricity needed to power the servers, which largely comes from fossil fuels. Finally, the company consumed approximately 1.2 million tons of rare metals in 2021, an 18% increase compared to 2020. These metals are used to produce the electronic components of servers, computers, and mobile devices that use rare metals, such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

The high environmental cost of AI and the Cloud
The high environmental cost of AI and the Cloud

In 2022, Microsoft launched Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, a suite of enterprise-grade sustainability management tools. The company also helped advance a set of global sustainability initiatives that aim to benefit every person and organisation. These include accelerating the availability of new climate technologies through our Climate Innovation Fund, strengthening a climate policy agenda, helping to develop a more reliable and interoperable carbon accounting system, advocating for skilling programs to expand the green workforce, and working to enable a just transition for the vulnerable populations of the global south.

The risk of water scarcity

Microsoft’s overall emissions decreased by 0.5 per cent in FY22. This was driven by improvements in their operations, telemetry-based measurement, renewable energy investments, sustainable aviation fuel purchases, and procurement of unbundled renewable energy certificates. AI and the spread of cloud services put water availability at risk. Although Microsoft claims in its report that it has reduced its carbon emissions and optimised resource use, there is a risk that water will become increasingly scarce. A study by the University of California calculated that, depending on the season and the location of the servers, ten requests to the artificial intelligence could require up to 1 litre of water. If you consider that millions of requests are made to ChatGPT and other AI-based applications daily, you understand that water consumption is enormous and unsustainable.

Water is a vital and limited resource which must be used sparingly and responsibly. Microsoft (but not only) should, therefore, invest more in renewable energy sources, more efficient cooling systems and greener technologies to reduce its environmental impact and guarantee a sustainable future for all.

Antonino Caffo has been involved in journalism, particularly technology, for fifteen years. He is interested in topics related to the world of IT security but also consumer electronics. Antonino writes for the most important Italian generalist and trade publications. You can see him, sometimes, on television explaining how technology works, which is not as trivial for everyone as it seems.