Who Cares About the Carbon Cost of a Google Search?

On Sunday, the UK's Times reported that performing two Google [GOOG] searches uses about as much energy as a kettle takes to boil. But Google says that estimate is inflated. Alex Wissner-Gross, the Harvard scientist quoted in the Times, says that singling out Google was the paper's agenda, not his, and that the publication made up its figures. Can anything be learned from this journalistic debacle?

The Times article purports to reveal the "environmental impact" of Googling stuff, and quotes a scientist from the Berkeley National Laboratory as saying that "Data centres [sic] are among the most energy-intensive facilities imaginable."

Also, the article cites a bit of Gartner [IT] research saying that the global IT industry creates about as much CO2 as the airline industry — equivalent to about 2%. Two percent? The worldwide cattle industry creates about 9% of the world's CO2, and in the U.S., buildings create about 12% of the CO2 released. Perhaps the Times should consult Harvard physicists on cows and buildings, those other great menaces to society. And of course server farms are energy-intensive; but imagine the energy that would be required to print, house and maintain all that data on paper, microfiche, or floppy disks.

Google has responded by touting its green initiatives through Google.org, its philanthropy, and its other enviro-friendly practices like using biodiesels shuttles and bicycles on its campuses. Greenpeace has also come to its defense, saying that Google is a foremost lobbyist for green energy in Washington. The search giant has also addressed the technical data cited in the Times by saying that while the energy required for searches vary depending on the obscurity of the query, most require about as much energy as the human body consumes in 10 seconds.

But the actual carbon cost of a Google search doesn't really matter. What's most important about the Times article, and its rebuttals, is that they highlight that there will be more dialogues about the energy costs of the information age — regardless of who makes up what figures.

Most Internet users are aware that their PC is sucking power from the wall, but probably never stop to consider that what they do with that PC can have an impact on their personal carbon footprint. Sure, we've learned to turn off the lights before leaving the house. But when will it become ingrained in us that playing World of Warcraft, with its processor-intensive graphics, or watching Hulu videos, which requires heavy server interaction, has a higher energy cost than tapping out a Word document?

It's arguable that awareness is the entire point of the green movement — not of grams of carbon, but the consciousness that everything requires energy, that energy has to come from somewhere, and that its sources create byproducts that are often nasty. It's this school of thought that will allow us to deal with the real menace: not the paltry 2% of CO2 that IT creates now, but the 5x, 10x or 1000x scenarios we'll be faced with in 50 or 100 years. The Times quotes a figure reporting that there are 200 million Web searches conducted in one day on earth. That's all? What happens when the third world gets Internet access, and the first world has it on every mobile phone? Why are we talking about grams of CO2 when we should be talking about systemic strategy?

Think back to the heyday of the drive-in burger joint in the 1950s, when no one considered the cost of using cars for every daily task. Now we realize the folly of that era. Eventually, we'll get a reign on the idea that computers require the same discretion. But only if we quit arguing about the minutiae — miles per gallon, or the price of gas — and focus on infrastructural solutions and forward-thinking legislation.

Sure, the Times might have been sensationalist in its eagerness to single out Google. But its point stands: the Internet is reliant on resources that carry heavy costs, and our profligate Web usage may not be sustainable for the next generation of users. So watch your Hulu videos without guilt while you still can; come 2025, you might find yourself getting taxed for carbon usage.

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3 Comments

  • Joe Rad

    The benefits of the internet far outweigh the costs.

    Let's see... the internet provides -

    Information that does not require printing, distribution and storage. I can buy a book for my Kindle or read the Tribune and, relatively speaking, have near no carbon footprint.

    It is a perfect platform for a Green, grassroots movement. Do you want to know the best way to energy proof your house? Google it. Do you want to investigate a local companies Co2 emissions? Google it. Case in point - this article.

    Email is another huge benefit to the environment. Ignore the other obvious benefits of near instant communication and look at the paper saved, the man hours saved, the transporting cost and the inevitable trash disposal.

    There are dozens of examples, probably a lot more pertinent than these, but you all get the idea.

    If the global warming crisis ever gets to such a state that idle computer time, such as playing a videogame, is "taxed for carbon usage" then expect to be taxed on a slew of other things.

    For instance, do you own a dog, cat or other pet?
    Do you really need more than one light bulb in your home?
    Why not just have a 20 inch t.v.?
    You bought a real paper book?! For shame!

    Until we all live in palm tree lean-tos, pick our own produce and fart into Co2 filter equipped jars, we won't see our Google search impact as a problem.

  • Chris Dannen

    Hi Dan, thanks for commenting. Yes, we're aware it's the British spelling. The adverb "sic" is used in brackets after a copied or quoted word that might appear odd to readers, to show that the word is quoted exactly as it stands in the original text.

  • Dan Webster

    Why the "centres [sic]"? You know that people spell centre that way around the world, right?