top of page

2024 Environmental Reports and Consumerism: Is there a link?

Climate action plans and sustainability reports of this kind by Google and Microsoft have now become common with brands and even music bands like Coldplay. The overview gives a snapshot of the sustainability efforts of different brands. The percentage of the general public who read these reports to vet the numbers and claims is not exactly known but it puts the spotlight on many of these brands and the details are important contributions to the environmental sustainability discourse.


The Google 2024 Environmental Report shows a 13% increase in 2023 total GHG emissions and a 48% increase relative to their 2019 target base year, primarily driven by increased data center energy consumption and supply chain emissions. The information on the company's website indicated Google's goal of achieving:



"a net-zero emissions across all operations and value chain by 2030 with the aim of reducing 50% of their combined Scope 1, 2 (market-based), and 3 absolute emissions (compared to our 2019 base year) by 2030, and plan to invest in nature-based and technology-based carbon removal solutions to neutralize our remaining emissions".

The report also shows that "Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming so deeply integrated into Google's products" and that scaling AI comes at a cost for the associated environmental impact. As the company works on improving green energy on the grids where they operate, "there are still some hard-to-decarbonize regions like Asia Pacific where Carbon-Free Energy (CFE) isn’t readily available". Also, there are longer wait times for initial investments and the construction of clean energy projects with the proposed project benefits of GHG reductions.



Google is heavily investing in AI for its cloud services division and as a key element for future search revenue. AI is also a major priority for the sustainability team, which aims to leverage AI to assist cities, individuals, and businesses in reducing their carbon footprints by 1 gigaton by 2030. Keep in mind that Google is working the notion that "AI has the potential to reduce 5-10 percent of global emissions by the year 2030".


Google is prioritizing three strategies to manage AI’s environmental impact:

  • Model Optimization: through Development and training; Deployment and usage:

  • Efficient Infrastructure: through Chip hardware efficiency; Data center energy efficiency; Responsible water use and Waste Management.

  • Emissions reductions: The company has secured agreements for 25 terawatt-hours through its investments in renewable energy. A portion of this capacity is supplied directly, while some is obtained in the form of credits. The upcoming investment focus will be on increasing clean energy production in Asia and expediting the accessibility of technologies like enhanced geothermal through fresh corporate collaborations.


"We deployed innovations like advanced geothermal, carbon-intelligent computing, and demand response capabilities, and partnered with others to leverage our demand, like our demand aggregation and procurement model for advanced clean electricity technologies with Microsoft and Nucor and our participation in Frontier".

TECHNOLOGY AND UNITENDED CONSEQUENCES

With that being said, the world is again at the crossroads of facing the reality that technology may not solve "all" our problems as many of the "green" innovation spectra would have us believe and the earlier we accept this truth the earlier we can form alliances to avoid these endless cycles of ..."ermmm, but I told you so".


This Google report mirrors the Microsoft 2024 Environmental Sustainability Report which indicates that efficient technology requires more energy consumption and as new efficient time-saving innovations are launched, consumption increases. The desire for a faster and easier way of life results in the development of new models that require similar data to operate. Hence, it is the case of different brands producing the same things- it all just depends on how it is packaged. The fundamental goals and end-use are strikingly similar.



Constantly, technological advancements and initiatives worldwide aimed at "saving the planet" often bring about unintended consequences that are initially downplayed. As a result, we find ourselves entangled in a never-ending cycle of post-innovation consequences. Given that AI is being heralded as the future direction, how swiftly can modern technology and its related AI systems transition to clean energy? and what assurances are in place.


ENTER JEVONS PARADOX AND CONSUMERISM

In the realm of sustainability, Jevons Paradox is always an underlined issue as it continues to "challenge the narratives behind sustainable energy policies striving for improvements in energy efficiency". The Jevons Paradox occurs when the use of a thing increases as it becomes more efficient and energy-saving cost-conscious, instead of decreased use.


For example, chances are you may be tempted to leave your new "energy-saving" (and probably less expensive) light bulb on for longer compared to your old less energy-efficient, and expensive light bulb. In the end, the longer use of the energy-saving light bulb may not exactly be different from the old light bulb- check your electricity bill. Except, maybe you use the new light bulb being energy cost-conscious as you used the old one.


The more electric cars become affordable, the more people want to own one. There are probably more incentives and advertisements that fuel the psychological bliss urging you to buy "your own" than consider the use of public transport. As more people buy electric cars with the assumption of relatively less environmental impact than fossil-fuel-powered cars, the number of cars on the road is less likely to reduce, and investment in public transport fails to catch up. Increased demand means more mining of rare earth metals sourced from specific parts of the world under questionable ethical circumstances. In the end, the initial sustainability goal of electric cars suffers a setback because unintended consequences associated with the increased use of electric cars may not be that different from the challenges of using fossil-fuel-powered cars.


An image of a blue electric vehicle beside a yellow charging port with a city backdrop
Electric Vehicle

Another example is buying more of an item when the price goes down even when you may not need it compared to when the price was higher. Take the "Black Friday" shopping fever for example or the increase in the sale of knockoffs of big brands or Fast Fashion. An important point that may not directly relate to the sustainability report but important are the arguments surrounding the Net Zero feasibility. Too many terms within the sustainability and climate change discourse are ambiguous and riddled with vague, contextual definitions which are in some cases, far removed from reality and even false claims.


Al tech-fueled growth numbers continue to skyrocket. More people now use different levels of AI technology and even more businesses are now integrating AI into their business operations and models. This brings back the Jevons Paradox challenge and why the focus should be on reduced consumption the same way there is a focus on efficient energy inventions. Since we now know from reports and research that AI is energy intensive like other technology and renewable energy cannot match the technological pace, shouldn't we be reducing reliance on AI and technology as a whole instead of fueling it?



Even though "AI use to better manage the environment could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost global GDP by up to US $5 trillion and create up to 38m jobs by 2030" according to this 2019 report, the report in 2024 by Google and Microsoft takes us back to square one. At this stage of the rave toward 2030, I would argue that finding ways to cut down on consumption at all levels should be given the same priority as the investment toward churning out more advanced technology driven by AI.


Excessive consumption with the needs of the rising population growth is an angle that needs to be brought into this AI-wave discourse following the Microsoft and Google reports. The insane amount of money that brands invest in advertisements and promotions to keep the consumption engine going requires even more scrutiny at this point. When new products (including technologies and services) are marketed to consumers as being more efficient, "green" and sometimes at a reduced cost, the tendency for increased demand is high. Hence, as consumers purchase and use the new AI model to "improve" their lives, they require more energy to power their lives because now they are spending more time on their smartphones or laptops to try the newest invention. When a product promises to make your life better or easier, you are even more tempted to consider owning it.


The bigger fight is balancing consumption with how fast these technological innovations with the unintended consequences are released for public use. When brands roll out "efficient, time-saving" products in this AI dispensation, there needs to be a backup budget to curb the consumerism end of the spectrum. Launching a new version of a product or service that requires updates in short intervals may nullify any associated sustainability goals. The bottom line is the monster of consumerism as the drive for more technology powered by AI is rooted in the cycle of demand and supply.



There is a constant psychological drive to buy more which is fueled by the deire to keep up with the Joneses in this age of social media in a world of increasing inequity. More people want to climb the social ladder and there is a need to back that status up with more material. Brands cling to the drive for innovation which results in the uploading their smartphones and laptops with the latest technology for thier business operation because no one wants to be left behind. Such competition between individuals and brands becomes the fuel for consumerism. Who can innovate faster, who can sell more, who can have the largest following? more products have become increasingly less durable, hence there is a constant demand for new gadgets.



Many of the problems have been recognized from these reports, the challenge now is taking steps toward collaborative solutions. How do we reduce our energy consumption as individuals, and small and large entities by entirely cutting down consumerism? The constant drive to innovate, push the boundaries of human brilliance and meet increasing wants rather than focusing on needs may be bigger a problem that we are willing to acknowledge.


Studies have consistently shown that empowering stakeholders with skills and support to co-lead collective change is essential for achieving the necessary level of action. Technology alone, without humans as accountability partners, is not effective in steering change in the desired "save the world" direction.


bottom of page