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AI will be help rather than hindrance in hitting climate targets, Bill Gates says

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Bill Gates has claimed that artificial intelligence will be more of a help than a hindrance in achieving climate goals, despite growing concern that an increase in new datacentres could drain green energy supplies.

The philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder told journalists that AI would enable countries to use less energy, even as they require more datacentres, by making technology and electricity grids more efficient.

Gates downplayed fears over AI’s climate impact amid mounting concerns that the tech breakthrough could lead to a rise in energy demand and require more fossil fuels as a result.

“Let’s not go overboard on this,” Gates said. “Datacentres are, in the most extreme case, a 6% addition [in energy demand] but probably only 2% to 2.5%. The question is, will AI accelerate a more than 6% reduction? And the answer is: certainly.”

A query run through the AI chatbot tool ChatGPT needs nearly 10 times as much electricity to process as a Google search, according to estimates by Goldman Sachs, which could mean that carbon emissions from datacentres more than double in the decade between 2022 and 2030.

Some expert estimates have claimed that an increase in the number of AI datacentres could cause electricity demand to rise by up to 10% in developed countries, after years of declining energy due to greater efficiency.

Gates told journalists at a London conference hosted by his venture fund Breakthrough Energy that the extra demand created by AI datacentres was more likely to be matched by new investments in green electricity because tech companies were “seriously willing” to pay extra to use clean electricity sources in order “to say that they’re using green energy”.

“The tech companies are the [ones] willing to pay a premium, and to help bootstrap green energy capacity,” he added.

Breakthrough Energy has invested in more than 100 companies involved in the energy transition. Gates is also a big investor in AI via the Gates Foundation Trust, which invests about a third of its $77bn (£61bn) wealth in Microsoft. In turn, Microsoft is the largest external investor in ChatGPT creator OpenAI, and has built a suite of AI tools into its Windows operating system under the brand Copilot.

But his belief that AI could ultimately cut carbon is not unusual. In February, a peer-reviewed paper in Nature Scientific Reports argued that generative AI produced between 130 and 2,900 times less CO2 to do simple writing and illustration tasks than if a human had carried them out instead.

AI technology has more directly affected emissions, as well. In 2016, just a few years after it bought British AI lab DeepMind, Google announced that it had been able to use the lab’s nascent deep learning technology to cut its cooling bill by 40% across its data centres. At a stroke, Google said, its data centres needed to use 15% less electricity spread across all the non-IT tasks as a result.

But the power use of a data centre is only part of the concern about the carbon impact of AI. In Microsoft’s own emissions reporting, the company says its “scope three”, or indirect, emissions have been trending in the wrong direction, in part because of the impact of building new datacentres around the world – a task that cannot yet be done using renewable electricity.

The rise of “on-device” AI, demonstrated by Microsoft through its new Copilot+ PCs and Apple with its “Apple Intelligence” boost to Siri, also muddies the water: big companies may be able to commit to buying all their electricity from renewable sources, but they cannot make the same promise for their customers, whose new devices are significantly more power-hungry than they would be otherwise.

Gates warned that despite advances in AI and green electricity tech, the world was likely to miss its 2050 climate targets by up to 15 years because the amount of green electricity needed to phase out fossil fuels was not coming forward quickly enough.

He said that a delay in the switch to green energy could hinder the decarbonisation of polluting sectors, including heavy industry, making a 2050 target to reach net zero emissions more difficult to achieve.

“I worry, in general, that the amount of green electricity that we need for the transition is not going to show up nearly as fast as we need,” Gates said.

“If you try to map out and say: ‘Let’s get to zero by 2050,’ you’re like: ‘Another 10 or 15 years might be more realistic.’ It’s very hard to see. We’re not going to get to zero by 2050, I don’t think,” he added.

Gates’s warning came a week after a global report found that, despite a record rise in renewable energy in 2023, consumption of fossil fuels also climbed to a new record high as a result of steadily rising demand.

This article was amended on 28 June 2024. It is the Gates Foundation Trust, rather than the Gates Foundation as an earlier version said, which is a major investor in AI and which invests about a third of its $77bn (£61bn) wealth in Microsoft.

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