Google: search and destroy?

Google searches may be as bad for the environment as making a cup of tea or filling a hot-water bottle.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Research by Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University academic, has found that using the near-ubiquitous search engine to perform two searches produces ‘as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle'. The American physicist totted up the electricity a computer uses, as well as the power consumed by Google's army of data centres around the world, and worked out that the average Google search produces about 7g of carbon dioxide.

However, these figures were disputed by the internet giant, which says a typical search produces only 0.2g of carbon dioxide. It's hardly a surprise to see Google hitting back, saying Wissner-Gross had the figures ‘many times too high'. It says that each search used its servers for only a few thousandths of a second, and that this amounted to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search - equivalent to 0.2g of CO2. How much carbon dioxide did that calculation produce?

The story demonstrates an unfortunate truth about eco-research: it's both hard to know exactly who's telling the truth, and easy to generate a headline. As the Guardian points out, Wissner-Gross is actually working on co2stats.com, a carbon-trading operation that helps companies identify ‘energy inefficient' elements of their websites, so is perhaps hardly the most impartial person to make such an announcement.

It may be hard to get a handle on, but the issue of IT emissions is becoming increasingly contentious. Gartner has stated that the global ICT sector produces as much CO2 each year as the global aviation industry - about 2-3% of total global emissions. As to how many search requests Google is handling, it could be anywhere from 200m to 500m a day.

But how many people are for the phrase 'eco-friendly kettle'? There are no stats on that, sadly.


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Google: search and destroy?

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