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Lawmakers introduce legislation to measure, report environmental impacts of AI

Rebecca Barnabi
Artificial intelligence
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The Artificial Intelligence Environmental Impacts Act of 2024 would direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop standards to measure and report the full range of AI’s environmental impacts.

The legislation would also create a voluntary framework for AI developers to report environmental impacts.

Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety, Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, founder and co-chair of the Senate AI Caucus and a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, co-chair of the House AI Caucus, and U.S. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, vice-chair of the House AI Caucus, introduced the bill today. 

The bill requires an interagency study to investigate and measure both the positive and negative environmental impacts of AI. While researchers increasingly highlight that AI can help tackle environmental challenges, such as by accelerating clean energy innovation, providing better weather forecasts, and improving cooling efficiency, the rapid growth of AI also comes with environmental harms. For example, increasing AI use could contribute to data center electricity demand doubling by 2026, leading to more carbon emissions. Demand for water to cool data centers is already creating concerns about water supplies, and the chips needed to run AI software are contributing to a growing mountain of electronic waste.  

“There is a Dickensian quality to the use of AI when it comes to our environment: It can make our planet better, and it can make our planet worse,” Markey said. “Our AI Environmental Impacts Act would set clear standards and voluntary reporting guidelines to measure AI’s impact on our environment. The development of the next generation of AI tools cannot come at the expense of the health of our planet. I thank Senator Heinrich, Representative Eshoo, and Representative Beyer, for their partnership in making sure that AI contributes to a more livable future for generations to come.” 

Senate cosponsors include Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Peter Welch of Vermont, Alex Padilla of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.   

“AI offers incredible possibilities for our country, but that comes with high environmental costs,” Eshoo said. “The resources necessary to research and develop AI are intensive, and as AI systems grow in scale and become more widely used across various sectors of society, it’s critical to understand the environmental impacts of AI development and use. I’m proud to introduce the Artificial Intelligence Environmental Impacts Act to conduct a comprehensive study on AI’s environmental impacts, identify standards needed to measure those impacts, and create a system for AI developers to report the full range of their environmental impacts.” 

The Artificial Intelligence Environmental Impacts Act would: 

  • Require a Study on the Environmental Impacts of AI: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would conduct a comprehensive study on the environmental impact of AI within two years. The study would examine AI models and hardware’s lifecycle, including energy consumption, pollution, and e-waste, as well as assess the positive and negative environmental impacts of AI’s applications.  
  • Convene an AI Environmental Impacts Consortium: NIST would convene a consortium of stakeholders to identify measurement needs and standards for AI’s environmental impacts.  
  • Create a Voluntary Reporting System: NIST would develop a system for entities developing or operating AI to voluntarily report the full range of AI’s environmental impacts.  
  • Direct a Report to Congress: Within four years, the EPA, the Department of Energy, and NIST would submit a joint report to Congress, detailing the consortium’s findings and describing the voluntary reporting system, as well as providing recommendations for further legislative and executive action. 

“Understanding the environmental impacts of this quickly growing technology is critical so that we can begin to address those impacts,” Beyer said. “While recognizing the ways AI can help us decrease emissions in other sectors and develop innovative climate solutions, we need to ensure we are being responsible with the adverse impacts it may have on our environment now.” 

The legislation is endorsed by Hugging Face, Data and Society, Climate Change AI, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Greenpeace USA, Center for AI and Digital Policy, Friends of the Earth Action, Kairos Action, Ekō, Accountable Tech, Encode Justice, Union of Concerned Scientists, Fidutam, Green Web Foundation, Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance, and Access Now. 

“Recent advances in AI have great potential to help us tackle big societal challenges,” said Emma Strubell, Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “However, there is increasing evidence that the development and use of AI can have a negative impact on the environment due to unprecedented computational requirements. Our understanding of the true scale and scope of these impacts is still nascent, limited by access to the necessary data and standards for reporting. Senator Markey’s AI Environmental Impacts Act provides a roadmap for elucidating the complex relationship between AI and the environment, which will be critical to ensuring that AI technology is developed and deployed so as to have a net positive impact on our environment and society.” 

According to Peter Henderson, Assistant Professor at Princeton University, AI’s impact on the environment remains uncertain. 

“On one hand, it could be used to improve infrastructure and systems for better efficiency, on the other hand it could harm the environment through increased demand for materials, manufacturing, and energy usage. The government has a large role to play in ensuring that AI is a net positive for the environment, by promoting transparency and innovation around AI’s environmental impacts. I applaud Senator Markey and Senator Heinrich for introducing this Bill that will provide a roadmap toward positive outcomes,” Henderson said.  

Dr. Priya Donti is co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI and said the “legislation provides a crucial step toward aligning society’s use of AI with climate change goals, by helping us measure the impacts of AI’s inputs and applications, and therefore take more targeted action to shape those impacts.”

“As the use of AI rapidly increases, society needs to understand how this new technology impacts the environment,” Erik Kojola, Senior Climate Research Specialist at Greenpeace USA said. “This means we need a rigorous system for tracking energy use and carbon emissions. The Artificial Intelligence Environmental Impacts Act of 2024 is a vital step in creating that system and studying how AI contributes to the climate crisis. This will bring much-needed transparency and accountability to the emerging AI industry.” 

The legislation has the support of the Center for AI and Digital Policy.

“Senator Markey and Senator Heinrich’s bold initiative addresses one of the greatest challenges in the AI sector — the possible acceleration of climate change. We need research and analysis to assess the environmental impact of AI systems. The AI Environments Impacts Act should be a top priority for Senate consideration,” Merve Hickok, President of the Center for AI and Digital Policy said. 

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.