After 17 years, Google has dropped its carbon-neutral promise due to the spike in emissions from its pursuit of AI, according to the tech giant’s latest environmental report

Since 2007, Google has claimed to purchase enough clean-energy supply to match the bulk of the emissions it generates through its data centers and buildings. However, since 2023, Google has no longer “maintained operational carbon neutrality,” according to the report. 

That’s because Google’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen nearly 50% since 2019, the company said. It blamed the spike on “increasing energy demands from the greater intensity of AI compute,” along with the emissions associated with broader infrastructure investment that AI requires. 

Over the next few years, Google will invest nearly $100 billion in AI, Demis Hassabis, chief executive of Google DeepMind—the company’s AI development lab—has said. So far, the most visible results of that investment are the company’s AI overviews in Search, and Google’s Gemini, which is a large language model that can be used to power various AI tools, designed to compete with OpenAI’s ChatGPT. 

That investment, however, comes with a cost, which the environment bears the brunt of, Nathan Truitt, executive vice president of climate funding at the nonprofit American Forest Foundation, told Fortune

“On an individual level, AI is definitely going to create a rapid increase in emissions for the companies that are heavily invested in it,” Truitt said. “And it’s going to lead to the sort of announcement that Google has made where they’re having to recalibrate their climate goals.”

Net-zero versus carbon neutral 

The announcement does not mean Google has completely foregone reducing its emissions. Rather, the company, in the report, set its visions on another goal: reaching net-zero emissions by 2030. 

There is a key distinction between a carbon-neutral goal and a goal of net-zero emissions. Carbon neutral refers to offsetting or neutralizing emissions through carbon-removal activities like planting trees or purchasing carbon credits, without necessarily reducing emissions at the source. Truitt used the metaphor of someone trying to burn off excess calories solely through exercise without changing their diet.

“In theory, that would be fine, but in practice, it’s very unlikely to work,” Truitt said.

Net zero, on the other hand, involves first reducing emissions as much as possible at the source (the “diet” part), and then offsetting any remaining emissions through carbon removal activities (the “exercise” part). 

Truitt noted this combination is “much much more effective,” and also extremely ambitious. 

“It’s going to require them to have to solve multiple, really thorny technical, logistical, economic, and financial challenges, all at once, in a very short period of time,” Truitt said.

By focusing on both offsetting carbon emissions and reducing greenhouse gasses, Google hopes to have a more “certain” and “scalable” environmental impact, according to the report. 

The goal of net-zero emissions may also help Google evade criticism some experts have launched at claims of carbon-neutrality. Critics have questioned whether cheap investments–such as paying villages to protect their forests, or planting a few thousand trees–can truly “offset” carbon emissions. 

Despite the critiques, Truitt doesn’t want organizations or advocacy groups to be too harsh on corporations that claim carbon-neutrality. It’s harder, and riskier, to attempt to do something about the environment, rather than to do nothing; we shouldn’t punish companies that try to do something, he argued.

“Companies should be rewarded and be able to make claims about the use of carbon offsets to address their emissions,” Truitt said. 

However, he added he would hope that corporations stop viewing climate policy as transactional, and take on more of a leadership role. 

“If a company is doing everything right, in terms of its specific carbon accounting policies, but isn’t using that platform to figure out how to be part of the solution in terms of the systemic reform, ultimately, I think we have to judge their climate policies as a  failure,” Truitt said. 

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