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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 …

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.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.



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