Bishop & Sewell

Three years ago, Google set an ambitious plan to address climate change by going “net zero”, meaning it would release no more climate-changing gases into the air than it removes, by 2030, writes Thom Wilkinson, a Partner in our Property and Environmental Law team.

Rather than declining, it recently reported that its emissions grew 13 percent in 2023 over the year before. Compared with its baseline year of 2019, emissions have soared 48 percent. Google cited artificial intelligence (AI) and the demand it puts on data centres, which require massive amounts of electricity, for last year’s growth.

Making that electricity by burning coal or natural gas emits greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane, which warm the planet, bringing more extreme weather.

In Google’s defence, their Chief Sustainability Officer, Kate Brandt, was widely reported, saying: “Reaching this net zero goal by 2030, is an extremely ambitious goal.

“We know this is not going to be easy and that our approach will need to continue to evolve,” Brandt added, “and it will require us to navigate a lot of uncertainty, including this uncertainty around the future of AI’s environmental impacts.”

The rapidly expanding data centres needed to power AI potentially threaten the entire transition to clean electricity, an important part of addressing climate change. That’s because a new data centre can delay the closure of a power plant that burns fossil fuels or prompt a new one to be built. Data centres are not only energy-intensive, but they also require high-voltage transmission lines and need significant amounts of water to stay cool. They are also noisy.

They often are built where electricity is cheapest, not where renewables, such as wind and solar, are a key source of energy.

Global data centre and AI electricity demand could double by 2026, according to the International Energy Agency.

In AI’s defence tech companies make the case that while AI is contributing to climate change, it’s also helping to address it. In the case of Google, that could mean using data to predict future flooding or making traffic flow more efficiently to save petrol.

Google’s emissions grew last year in part because the company used more energy; 25,910 gigawatt hours more, an increase from the year before and more than double the hours of energy consumed just four years earlier. A gigawatt hour is roughly the energy that a power plant serving several hundred thousand households puts out in one hour.

On the positive side, as Google’s consumption grows, so has its use of renewable energy.

The company said in 2020 it would meet its enormous need for electricity using only clean energy every hour of every day by 2030 all over the world. Last year, Google said, it saw an average of 64 percent carbon-free energy for its data centres and offices around the globe. The company said its data centres are on average 1.8 times as energy efficient as others in the industry.

So who can you trust? Is AI the villain here?

I predict, that rather than halting humans’ productive evolution AI will augment it. A topic I’m sure we’ll revisit soon.


Contact our Property Team

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article, please do get in contact, quoting ref CB479. Thom Wilkinson is a Partner specialising in Property and Environmental Law and is contactable on: +44 (0)20 7692 7581 or

The above is accurate as at 08 July 2024. The information above may be subject to change.

The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Category: Blog, News | Date: 8th Jul 2024

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