Dec 4, 2023 - Technology

AI takes center stage at COP28 as experts debate tech's climate impact

Illustration of a glowing lightning bolt symbol filled with binary code.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios.

Running AI is much more energy-intensive than other forms of computing, but as leaders gather for the COP28 global climate summit in Dubai, we know relatively little about AI's net impact on climate change.

Why it matters: Increasing adoption of AI may make it one of the biggest uses of energy globally — putting pressure on AI providers to measure and publish data on energy use and energy sources.

Driving the news: AI has been a top theme of COP28.

  • The United Nations and Microsoft on Thursday announced an AI-powered climate data hub to track progress in reducing emissions because as Microsoft's Brad Smith said in a statement, "you can't fix what you can't measure."

The context: Other high-growth, high-emission parts of the global economy including civil aviation and commercial shipping have bowed to pressure to measure and reduce their carbon emissions — but there's no such plan on the table for AI or data centers more generally.

State of play: Overall data center energy consumption is growing despite impressive efficiency gains, according to the International Energy Agency — everything beyond that is a matter of dispute.

Flashback: A Dutch PhD student grabbed headlines in October, by concluding in a peer-reviewed paper that AI could use as much electricity as the Netherlands or Sweden by 2027. But this is just 0.5% of global energy consumption.

The other side: It's possible to run power-hungry AI systems without wrecking the planet.

What they're saying: Evan Smith, CEO of supply chain company Altana, tells Axios that he uses AI to "make a physical system more efficient," and that even marginal gains across big supply chains means "you're pulling a massive lever on the climate equation."

What we're watching: The European Union will start requiring all but the smallest data centers on the continent to report emissions to meet new corporate sustainability reporting requirements.

  • In California companies with annual revenues over $1 billion will have to report their emissions by 2026.

The bottom line: While companies are getting better at setting climate targets, lack of transparency around energy use and the absence of standardized reporting requirements from regulators means we're going to be debating AI's climate impact for years to come.

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