Running just two searches on Google releases as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle, says Harvard University physicist Dr Alex Wissner-Gross. He says that each search produces 7g of CO2, but just how did he come up with such a figure? Well to be honest, I don’t know. I can’t find any original sources for his figures, only media reports. It’s still possible to infer some information from these reports, however.
The Times reports a similar estimation by Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, who suggest a Google search emits between 7g and 10g of CO2. This estimate assumes a total of 15 minutes computer use for one search however, which seems incredibly slow to me. Closer to the mark would be 15 seconds – type your search, hit enter, check the results and click a link – normally the first one, thanks to Google’s accurate searching technology.
Since both Goodall’s and Dr Wissner-Gross’s estimates agree, its not unreasonable to suggest they must be making similar assumptions – inaccurate assumptions, in other words. Google agree, and have responded to the claims. They say that as the average search takes just 0.2 seconds, their servers only use 0.0003 kWh of power per search – about the same amount of energy as an adult human body burns in ten seconds, apparently.
In terms of CO2 emissions, this works out at about 0.2g per search, far from the 7g claimed by Dr Wissner-Gross. Now, we’ve only got Google’s word for these figures, but I see no reason to believe Dr Wissner-Gross over them for one simple reason – he runs a company that offers to make your site carbon neutral. As is to be expected, everyone reporting the story has plugged his website so I won’t give him any more free publicity, and it does rather bring in to question his motivation for releasing his study.
I also question the comparison to boiling a kettle, which we are told is roughly equivalent to two search in carbon terms. The trouble is, “a kettle” is not the most scientific definition. A kettle will take a different amount of time to boil depending on how much water there is inside, and thus the electricity used is variable. As a basis for comparison, it’s a bit lacking.
Finally, consider the alternative to Google. Finding out information would involve travelling to a library, most likely by car, hunting down the book you require, and then searching through it. All of these activities require energy, be it in the form of petrol to power your car or food to fuel your muscles, and emit far more carbon into the atmosphere than simply loading up Google. I don’t know about you, but I think I will continue to Google with a green and guilt-free conscience.