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The Carbon Footprint of a Google Search

CO2 bomb

"Globally, the IT industry produces about the same volume of greenhouse gasses as the world’s airlines do,” writes Jason Stamper in Standpoint. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of two percent of the modern civilization’s CO2 emissions.

Even your Google searches have a carbon footprint:

A Google search can leak between 0.2 and 7.0 grams of CO2, depending on how many attempts are needed to get the "right" answer. At the upper end of the scale, two searches create roughly the same emissions as boiling a kettle.

To deliver results to its users quickly, Google has to maintain vast data centres around the world, packed with powerful computers. As well as producing large quantities of CO2, these computers emit a great deal of heat, so the centres need to be well air-conditioned - which uses even more energy.

So here’s something funny: According to Google’s search trends database roughly 368,000 people search “carbon footprint” every month.  You get where I’m going with this, right? Even the words “carbon footprint” have a carbon footprint!  Ugh.

Source: Standpoint

Image by GuenterHH, licensed under Creative Commons.

pete hart
7/13/2010 9:36:45 AM

Nice comment, Jaquith! Also, how about comparing performing a google search with driving to one's nearest library to look it up? Do we look at the carbon footprint of the automotive industry, the advertising industry and/or the broadcast/cable industries? Let's get serious about this. I don't know the average age of Utne Reader's users, but some of us remember what information access was like before the 4-function calculator was introduced. Google searches may eventually contribute invaluably to helping us all solve a variety of global problems. Global footprint of a google search - get real!

tim gieseke
7/13/2010 9:27:01 AM

It is important to know your energy footprint to conduct activities, but after we have the fun of comparing apples to organges we need to decide which activities produce value and wealth. I often hear how energy demanding food production is - and it often is. But it is an activity that creates value and wealth and sequesters and recycles carbon. We are children of a new era and we are learning how to use our new knowledge. After the fun wears off we can begin to decide if consuming, lets says a tremendous amount of energy to produce another movie blockbuster creates value and wealth - or does that consumption of energy just dissapate both and we end up with carbonO2. Of course, people get to decide that with their money, we just have to make sure the economic system allows for better judgement.

7/13/2010 7:33:30 AM

Your information is important to know. Thank you for that but there is a plus to this energy consumption and CO2 emissions. I read UTNE because of it and got to know a great deal of useful info. Let's keep our internet searches to the necessary but let's keep the information turning while improving / reducing our carbon foot print.

paul roman
7/13/2010 7:21:12 AM

It's still beats getting in the car to go to the library every time I need an answer.

waldo jaquith
7/8/2010 3:33:54 PM

Jeff, this is deeply, deeply misleading. For starters, Google has done the math (what with running their own data centers with negotiated power rates—they're the ones who get the power bills) and just 0.2 grams of CO2 are emitted for a single query. Seven grams of emissions would require 30 searches, which is a pretty unlikely number. Cherry picking the top end of that, multiplying it by two, and comparing it to boiling a kettle is more misleading still. Stamper doesn't give us anything to evaluate this claim. How much water is in this kettle? Is it in a stovetop, or is it the kind that plugs into the wall? Or are we boiling it over a fire? What is the source of the power—wind, solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, coal, or a mix? How efficient is this grid? This is an utterly meaningless assertion. Further, what is the query? If I'm searching for "world cup," that query is being entered many times each second—those results are cached, and can be delivered quickly and efficiently with very few servers performing any work. But if my search is "site:utne.com 'Jeff Severns Guntzel'", that is almost certainly not cached, and will require more processing power (and thus energy, and thus power). And which Google servers is he talking about? Does this query hit their facility in The Dalles, Oregon? Because those are located there to take advantage of the hydroelectric dam nearby. I could go on, but I've hit the 1,500 limit. You should be busting this myth, not promoting it.