summary Summary

AI has high environmental costs that are largely unknown, says Kate Crawford, a researcher at USC Annenberg and Microsoft Research who focuses on the social implications of artificial intelligence.


In addition to energy, generative AI systems require large amounts of fresh water to cool their processors and generate electricity, Crawford says.

She cites estimates that by 2027, global water use for AI could be equivalent to half of the United Kingdom's consumption.

In West Des Moines, Iowa, a data center for OpenAI's GPT-4 accounted for about 6 percent of the county's water use in July 2022. According to their environmental reports, Google and Microsoft's water use increased by 20 percent and 34 percent, respectively, within a year.


Instead of relying on new technologies like nuclear fusion, as recently proposed by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Crawford calls for pragmatic measures to limit AI's environmental impact. These include prioritizing energy efficiency, building more efficient models, and redesigning data centers.

"Rather than pipe-dream technologies, we need pragmatic actions to limit AI’s ecological impacts now," says Crawford.

Environmental costs of generative AI are "closely guarded corporate secrets"

The full environmental costs of AI are "closely guarded corporate secrets," according to Crawford. Current figures are based on research, limited company reports, and data published by local governments. They paint an incomplete picture, and "there's little incentive for companies to change."

Crawford hopes that US Democrats, led by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, can push through the Artificial Intelligence Environmental Impacts Act of 2024, which was introduced on February 1.

The bill would require the National Institute of Standards and Technology to work with scientists, industry, and civil society to develop standards for assessing the environmental impacts of AI and create a voluntary reporting framework for AI developers and operators.


Whether the bill will pass is uncertain. According to Crawford, it will take the combined efforts of the AI industry, researchers, and lawmakers to truly address the environmental impact of AI.

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, recently warned of an energy crisis in the AI industry, citing the enormous energy needs of future AI systems.

Join our community
Join the DECODER community on Discord, Reddit or Twitter - we can't wait to meet you.
Support our independent, free-access reporting. Any contribution helps and secures our future. Support now:
Bank transfer
  • Researcher Kate Crawford criticizes the high and largely unknown environmental costs of AI, including the high consumption of energy and fresh water to cool processors.
  • She cites estimates that global water use for AI could be equivalent to half of the UK's consumption by 2027, with Google and Microsoft's water consumption already increasing by 20 and 34 percent respectively in one year.
  • Crawford calls for pragmatic measures such as prioritizing energy efficiency and building more efficient models to limit the environmental impact of AI, rather than relying on new technologies such as nuclear fusion.
Online journalist Matthias is the co-founder and publisher of THE DECODER. He believes that artificial intelligence will fundamentally change the relationship between humans and computers.
Join our community
Join the DECODER community on Discord, Reddit or Twitter - we can't wait to meet you.