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Sustainability South Africa

Microsoft's climate goals challenged by generative AI investment

Microsoft's commitment to becoming carbon negative, water positive, zero waste, and protecting more land than it uses by 2030 faces significant hurdles, particularly due to the rise of generative AI technologies. While the company maintains that “these technologies hold promise for addressing the climate crisis” the infrastructure and electricity demands they create pose new challenges for its lofty sustainability commitments.
The age of generative AI increases energy and water usage with a negative effect on climate goals.
The age of generative AI increases energy and water usage with a negative effect on climate goals.

Microsoft states in a 2024 Environmental Sustainability Report that it has made strides in several areas, including reducing direct operational emissions, accelerating carbon removal, designing for circularity, and improving biodiversity.

However, the company acknowledges it's not on track to meet its goals for reducing Scope 3 emissions and water usage.

The rise in Scope 3 emissions is down to increased datacentre construction and the associated carbon in building materials and hardware components.

Addressing this challenge, the company says, requires a “multi-pronged strategy focused on measurement, efficiency, partnerships, market building, and policy advocacy.”

Water concerns

Water usage remains a concern as the datacentre business grows.

Microsoft is investing in new designs for AI workloads that consume zero water for cooling and partnering to advance water policy.

This is contrasted by Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai’s boast at Google I/O that the company’s “AI hypercomputer advancements are made possible in part because of our approach to liquid cooling in our datacentres.”

“We’ve been doing this for nearly a decade, long before it became state of the art for the industry,” Pichai continued. “And today, our total deployed fleet capacity for liquid cooling systems is nearly 1GW and growing. That’s close to 70 times the capacity of any other fleet.”

The growth of generative AI technologies, while potentially beneficial for climate solutions, exacerbates the challenge of achieving sustainability targets.

The energy-intensive nature of these technologies necessitates a careful balancing act between innovation and environmental impact.

Microsoft says it is actively engaged in finding solutions to reduce the environmental footprint of generative AI, including exploring more efficient algorithms and hardware.

However, the rapid pace of technological advancement in this field demands continuous innovation and adaptation.

The path forward

Despite the challenges, the Bill Gates founded firm is optimistic about its ability to meet its climate goals, emphasising the importance of collaboration across the tech sector and with governments and organisations worldwide.

Microsoft is investing in research and development, forging partnerships, and advocating for policy changes to accelerate progress.

The company is presenting its Climate Innovation Fund, a $1bn commitment, as a key part of this effort, supporting the development of innovative climate technologies.

The journey toward sustainability in the age of AI is a complex one, with generative AI adding a new layer to the challenge, highlighting the need for continuous innovation and collaboration to achieve a more sustainable future.

About Lindsey Schutters

Lindsey is the editor for ICT, Construction&Engineering and Energy&Mining at Bizcommunity
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