Unveiling the Ecological Dark Side of Artificial Intelligence

December 18, 2023 nocilla_mhn6zc

As a frequent user of AI (ChatGpt), I utilise it both as a lecturer and for teaching my students effective prompting techniques. However, I always exercise caution and prioritize qualities such as logical reasoning, critical thinking, and creativity. Driven by my curiosity regarding the practicality of AI in education and its function in supporting educators and students, I was intrigued to investigate the environmental implications of AI. Observing COP28 sparked my curiosity about how artificial intelligence effectively regulates energy consumption.

The ecological impact of Generative AI (GenAI) is a complex issue that involves multiple elements, such as energy consumption, water usage, and carbon emissions. GenAI, which encompasses models such as ChatGPT, goes through two main stages: the training stage and the inference stage.

During the training phase, the model acquires knowledge from extensive datasets, necessitating significant computer resources. This procedure occurs within data centers, renowned for their energy-intensive activities. The training phase has a substantial impact on the ecological footprint as a result of its high electricity consumption and the subsequent emission of heat.

The inference phase is the stage where the trained model produces fresh content by utilizing its training data and user input. This stage also requires computational resources, although to a lesser degree than the training stage. During the process of inference, the model analyzes user queries or prompts and generates responses or content by utilizing its acquired patterns.

The energy usage of GenAI, especially during the training stage, is a significant factor contributing to its ecological impact. Large Language Models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT necessitate substantial computing resources, typically sourced from data centers that contribute to worldwide electricity usage.

Data centers’ energy use, together with the resulting carbon emissions, adds to the overall environmental impact. GenAI relies heavily on data centers, which are crucial for its computational requirements, and these data centers frequently necessitate a significant amount of water for the purpose of cooling. The water footprint of GenAI encompasses the quantity of water utilized to maintain ideal temperatures within these data centers.

The water footprint of the AI infrastructure might fluctuate based on the cooling methods utilized and the size of the infrastructure. Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the combustion of carbon-based fuels. Carbon emissions are a major factor contributing to the ecological footprint, mostly linked to the energy usage of GenAI. The utilization of electricity, frequently obtained from non-renewable sources, leads to the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Analyzing the Energy Puzzle:

The crux of AI’s ecological footprint resides in the functioning of Generative AI (GenAI), a domain encompassing models such as ChatGPT. Data centers, which provide the necessary computational capacity for AI, currently represent approximately 1–1.5% of the total world’s electricity consumption. However, the exponential expansion of artificial intelligence could potentially increase this proportion even further.

These data centers require significant amounts of water for cooling, specifically around 0.473 liters for every 5-50 AI prompts. The construction of Large Language Models (LLMs), like ChatGPT, necessitates thorough data processing, resulting in large electricity consumption and the generation of significant heat.

For instance, the creation of ChatGPT required 1,287 megawatt hours of electricity and produced 552 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of 123 gas-powered cars.

(Press, 2023)

According to forecasts, it is anticipated that NVIDIA may introduce 1.5 million AI server units per year by 2027, resulting in an annual electricity consumption of over 85.4 terawatt-hours.

(Chowdhury, 2023)

This amount exceeds the yearly energy consumption of numerous small countries. The environmental consequences are more evident when examining particular activities. The energy consumption required to produce a single photograph can be equivalent to fully charging a smartphone. Additionally, certain models, such as Stable Diffusion XL, emit a comparable amount of CO2 as driving 4.1 miles in a car when generating 1,000 images.

According to some experts, consumption of data centers on the European continent will grow by 28 percent by 2030, and the carbon footprint of an AI prompt is estimated to be 4 to 5 times greater than that of a search-engine query.

(CHO, 2023)

Substituting Google’s daily volume of 9 billion searches with AI chatbot queries would necessitate an energy consumption comparable to that of operating an entire nation, such as Ireland.

Comprehensive Ecological Consequences:

The combined effects of GenAI’s energy use, water usage, and carbon emissions determine its ecological footprint. The environmental consequences differ depending on variables like the size of the model, the time of training, and the effectiveness of the data centers that support the AI infrastructure.  As the field of AI advances, researchers are actively working towards creating models that consume less energy and adopting sustainable techniques to reduce the environmental consequences of Generative AI.


MCLEAN, S. (2023, APRIL 28). Earth . ORG The Environmental Impact of ChatGPT: A Call for Sustainable Practices In AI Development. Retrieved from Earth . ORG : https://earth.org/environmental-impact-chatgpt/

Press, E. A. (2023, May 24). Euronews. Retrieved from Generative AI is the hot new technology behind chatbots and image generators. But how hot is it making the planet?: https://www.euronews.com/next/2023/05/24/chatgpt-what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-generative-ai-models

Chowdhury, H. (2023, August 23). Business Insider. Retrieved from Nvidia plans to triple production of its $40,000 chips as it races to meet huge demand from AI companies, report says: https://www.businessinsider.com/nvidia-triple-production-h100-chips-ai-drives-demand-2023-8?op=1

CHO, R. (2023, June 9). News from the Columbia Climate School. Retrieved from State of The Planet: https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2023/06/09/ais-growing-carbon-footprint/

Education, A. F. (2023, December 16). AI’s Impact on the Environment. Retrieved from AI For Education: https://www.aiforeducation.io/ai-resources/ais-impact-on-the-environment?ss_source=sscampaigns&ss_campaign_id=657f5c05abbdd86dba76ff53&ss_email_id=657f76ed8b6fee4c013df905&ss_campaign_name=AI+for+Education+Newsletter&ss_campaign_sent_date=2023-12-17T22%3A