The benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) need to be balanced against the environmental implications and unintended consequences arising from hardware, model training and energy consumption, according to Gartner.

CIOs can use their digital knowledge and foundation to support the sustainability efforts of their organizations when implementing AI initiatives.

“Gartner’s 2023 CEO survey showed that environmental issues entered the top 10 priority ranking for the first time in the history of the survey,” says Bettina Tratz-Ryan, vice-president analyst at Gartner. “At the same time, CIOs are under increasing pressure from their executives, customers, employees, investors and regulators to initiate or reinvigorate their IT for sustainability programs.

“Sixty-four percent of CEOs surveyed said combining digitalization, such as AI adoption, and environmental sustainability is a growth opportunity. CIOs should take that as a call to be more proactive in establishing their leadership through the execution of sustainability transformation strategies and use sustainability as a platform for growth.”

For most CIOs, delivering on mandates and requirements means tracking and tracing on business KPIs, such as product carbon footprint or energy intensity.

“It is a matter of how the CIO applies their digital foundation, or their digital dividend, to accommodate their organization’s digitalization metrics, while delivering on the sustainability requirements – two for one,” says Tratz-Ryan. “Above all, even if the business is not prioritizing sustainability yet, the CIO should make their digital foundation sustainability- ready.”

Being sustainability-ready applies to cloud and storage, infrastructure and operations, digital threads and the rapidly growing adoption of AI.

Although 78% of surveyed CEOs said the benefits of AI outweigh the risks, the increasing number of organizations using AI, including generative AI (GenAI) is leading to a growing environmental footprint of AI.

Gartner predicts that by 2030, AI could consume up to 3,5% of the world’s electricity.

“AI consumes a lot of electricity and water. This negative impact should be mitigated,” says Pieter den Hamer, vice-president analyst at Gartner. “Executives should be cognisant of AI’s own growing environmental footprint and take active mitigation measures. For example, they could prioritise (cloud) data centres powered by renewable energy”.

Gartner says public cloud providers can produce 70% to 90% fewer GHG emissions than traditional server rooms, owned data centers and midsize data centre facilities.

However, AI is not only bad news for environmental sustainability. In fact, AI’s own footprint is more than eclipsed by the potential use of AI to boost many sustainability initiatives.

“This can only be achieved if business and IT leaders proactively initiate and foster a portfolio of AI initiatives that help achieve the sustainability and environment, social and governance (ESG) goals of their organizations,” says den Hamer. “For instance, AI can be used to predict demand more accurately and reduce the usage of raw materials and energy in manufacturing.

“Overall, if used in the right way and focused on the right use cases, AI can help companies mitigate sustainability risk, optimize costs and drive growth.”