Internet zealots get a charge out of describing books, magazines, and newspapers as “dead tree media.” The implication is that surrounding yourself with always-on electronic gadgets connected through a vast switching network to massive data centers represents a more environmentally friendly lifestyle than that pursued by, say, an old lady sitting at her kitchen table reading the morning paper.
Whatever makes you feel good about yourself.
Today’s Sunday Times reports on a new study by a Harvard research fellow named Alex Wissner-Gross which concludes that “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 the research, “a typical search generates about 7g of CO2” while “boiling a kettle generates about 15g.”
Let me start by saying that I find those numbers to be mind-boggling. In fact, I find them to be so mind-boggling that I’m dubious of them. In addition to being a researcher, Wissner-Gross is an entrepreneur who has a start-up that sells a service for tracking the electricity consumption of web sites. So he has a commercial as well as an academic interest here. So far as I can tell, he hasn’t made public his calculations. If he’s going to throw his conclusions around, he should show us how he arrived at them.
If we assume that Google processes a billion searches a day worldwide (a reasonable guesstimate), that means that, according to Wissner-Gross’s numbers, those searches are producing 7 billion grams of carbon dioxide. Over the course of a year, that comes out to 2,555 billion grams. That equals, according to my rough and not altogether reliable arithmetic, 2.6 billion kilograms, or 2.6 million metric tons. I don’t know enough about CO2 emissions to know whether that’s a reasonable number. But somebody out there must know if it’s a reasonable number.
But Wissner-Gross is surely right about one thing: that, as he tells the Times, “a Google search has a definite environmental impact.” Adds Evan Mills, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which has done extensive research on the electricity use of information technology: “Data centres are among the most energy-intensive facilities imaginable.”
Google has been very aggressive in developing energy-saving computer technologies (much more so than traditional PC and server manufacturers) – and its efforts should be applauded. Cutting energy consumption is a business imperative for the company (because its electric bill is one of its biggest costs), and I think it’s fair to say that the Googlers see it as a moral imperative, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that its search engine and other Internet services, like those of other online companies, consume an enormous quantity of electricity.
Google is in something of a moral quandary here. It’s dedicated to energy efficiency, but it’s also dedicated to getting people to spend as much time using the Net, and their computers, as possible. (That’s the very core of its ad-based business model.) The company hasn’t disclosed its electricity consumption. It says that such details of its operations are competitive secrets. I’m sure that’s true. I’m also sure it’s true that Google doesn’t particularly want us to focus too closely on its energy use or, for that matter, on the environmental implications of our own Internet use.
If reducing energy consumption were the company’s top priority, it would launch a PR campaign to educate people about those implications. It would encourage us to be conscious of the time we spend online – and to try to reduce that time. It might even offer, perhaps as part of the Google toolbar, a little calculator that shows a running estimate of the grams of CO2 we emit during each Internet session. Or maybe it could put a little banner across its home page reading: “Is this search really necessary?”
But this isn’t really about Google, which is only supplying us with services that we want. It’s about us. We may be obsessive about turning off the lights when we leave a room, but at the same time we may happily spend hours dicking around online, oblivious of the electricity lighting up our screen, heating our chip, and powering and cooling the data centers we’re connected to. (It’s true that in some cases Internet use may substitute for other activities, such as travel, that would consume more energy, but let’s not kid ourselves: the vast majority of computer and Internet use represents additional energy consumption.) How many Twitterheads think about their electricity use before they tweet? Not many. How many bloggers think about it before they blog? Not this one.
So the next time you see some lunkhead smugly bloviating about “dead tree media,” ask him how much electricity his computers, smartphones, and other networked gadgets consumed that day.
UPDATE: Google responds, claiming the Wissner-Gross estimate “is *many* times too high”: “Queries vary in degree of difficulty, but for the average query, the servers it touches each work on it for just a few thousandths of a second. Together with other work performed before your search even starts (such as building the search index) this amounts to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ … In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2.”
Still, the numbers add up. Google says “the average car driven for one kilometer … produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.” That means that the billion searches Google is estimated to do a day are equivalent to driving a car about a million kilometers. And that doesn’t include the energy used to power the PCs of the people doing the searches, which Google says is greater than the power it uses.