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Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches

Jonathan Leake and Richard Woods, UK Times
Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea, according to new research.

While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2 Boiling a kettle generates about 15g. “Google operates huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power,” said Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon. “A Google search has a definite environmental impact.”

Google is secretive about its energy consumption and carbon footprint. It also refuses to divulge the locations of its data centres. However, with more than 200m internet searches estimated globally daily, the electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions caused by computers and the internet is provoking concern.
(11 January 2009)

How you can help reduce the footprint of the Web

Jonathan Leake, UK Times
Browsing the internet contributes to global warming by generating extra greenhouse gases – but could the web be made greener? Jonathan Leake talks to Dr Alex Wissner-Gross a physicist from Harvard University

… Google does not divulge its energy use or carbon footprint but, based on publicly available information, we have calculated that each Google search generates an estimated 5-10 g of CO2, in part because Google’s unique infrastructure replicates queries across multiple servers, which then compete to provide the fastest answer to your query. On the other hand, just browsing a basic website generates about 20 mg of CO2 for every second you view it.

More complex websites with rich animations and video can be responsible for the emission of CO2 at up to 300 mg per second. Where are these emissions coming from? For a typical website experience, the dominant contribution to its footprint comes from the electricity consumed by its visitors’ computers, followed by the network infrastructure needed to transmit the website, with the servers and data centers providing the website as the smallest contributor. [emphasis added]

Many prominent sites are, however, increasing emissions through software errors and other problems, which increase the time – and energy – needed to access them.
(11 January 2009)
The emphasis on Google seems to be rather misleading. Google isn’t really the issue – it’s the entire structure of the web, including personal computers, networks, as well as the server farms.

Since electricity for PCs is the dominant factor, the most effective response would be energy-efficient PCs and turning them off when not in use. Turning to green sources of electricity would reduce the carbon footprint.

Dr. Wissner-Gross’s point about the inefficiency of much web software is a good one. It’s all too easy to design a website to be an energy hog. That’s one of the reasons we’ve kept the interface of Energy Bulletin simple. Simple interfaces also reduce the time you spend waiting for an article to display. -BA

Powering a Google search

Google blog, Google
Not long ago, answering a query meant traveling to the reference desk of your local library. Today, search engines enable us to access immense quantities of useful information in an instant, without leaving home. Tools like email, online books and photos, and video chat all increase productivity while decreasing our reliance on car trips, pulp and paper.

But as computers become a bigger part of more people’s lives, information technology consumes an increasing amount of energy, and Google takes this impact seriously. That’s why we have designed and built the most energy efficient data centers in the world, which means the energy used per Google search is minimal. In fact, in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query.

Recently, though, others have used much higher estimates, claiming that a typical search uses “half the energy as boiling a kettle of water” and produces 7 grams of CO2. We thought it would be helpful to explain why this number is *many* times too high.
(11 January 2009)
Google’s response.