Seven Grams CO2 per Google Search? Not True or Relevant, but Fun To Repeat


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Many of us will remember the whole seven grams of CO2, kettle of tea thing with Google, and guess that it probably isn't quite right; the dude that supposedly said it now supposedly denies it, apparently blaming it on London Times ax grinding against Google. At this point, who really knows what's going on - maybe TechNewsWorld has an ax to grind for the Times too - but one thing is for sure; all day today, the entire audience following this story will get their pleasures from figuring it out. And that, environmentally, is 100% exactly the problem.

Well, I actually I lied about that - it's not 100% of the problem, only part of it, but I wanted you to click through to continue reading; ironically, perhaps that's 'part of the problem' too! At this point, you are probably demanding some sense out of this article; ok, here's the sense.

Grams of CO2 Per Google Search
Let's start with the numbers themselves; the initial claim was that the average Google search emits 7 grams of carbon dioxide; this figure immediately gets pasted all over the Internet. Terrific! Now we know! Invariably, other comparative figures are included in these stories as well, like boiling a kettle or water to make tea, or a book, or a cheeseburger, or a car. One would suppose these numbers are used to provide some sort of perspective or 'level playing field'.

What really needed to happen is that someone should have taken a look at that 7 gram figure and determined if it was realistic. Few considered this; gladly, Nick Carr did on Rough Type, and it turns out he was probably right:

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.

Note that Carr doesn't make a whole lot of conclusions, just that 2.6 million metric tons of CO2 seems like a pretty fantastic number. Turns out that it appears that it was - the Google correction to the story puts each search at about 0.2 grams, 35 times less. So lesson one - a simple math check on any environmental statistic can add a lot of perspective.

On Context and Validity
After we get by this hubbub of grams per search, we need to examine what the context of these figures; what do the number mean? Contextually, a few authors dug up some interesting items, such as the purported author has his own company which provides eco-labelling for websites. Also, there is the fact that Google's number is not verified either, but it clearly benefits them to report something low. Carr phrases this as such:

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.

Aha! Yes, yes; the framework is shaping up. So there are a few players here - on one hand we have Google, a huge enterprise that consumes a lot of electricity to conduct business; we have an entrepreneur of a green start-up who benefits from media coverage; and we have the London Times, who may be grinding axes, and is certainly not checking facts too well. And then, most importantly we have us, who read, blog, twitter, and gobble all this stuff down on a daily basis.

What to Do
You will certainly draw your own conclusions about this little meme; it is possible you might take some kind of action as well. Here's what I'm going to do:

  • I'm going to write about it. This makes me feel like I'm helping out and puts a little bit of cash in my pocket; yes, I'm rewarding myself and consuming some resources to do it. Much like Google, I can live with myself.
  • I'm going to realize that the debate is continuing - both sides have reported numbers that are unverified and in their own self interest from an environmental perspective. As such, there is no new information here, and I'm not going to stop using Google search or buy an eco-label from CO2 Stats based on this information.
  • I realize that the London Times probably screwed up in some way; they either bent the story or didn't fact check it. Shame on them.
  • I'm going to wonder if the problem is not really me and my pointless pseudo-addiction to the Internet. Again, Carr says this best:

    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.

  • And isn't this final point really the heart of the issue - we, the people, are the ones demanding these services such as Google search. Not only is the price right (free) but we're under the strong impression that they are adding value to our lives; financially, socially, even culturally. As Carr suggests, if we are in fact 'the problem', in whole or part, perhaps we should point the finger more at ourselves for the solution. Rough Type
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    How Green is Google?
    Black Google Saves Energy
    Environmental Impact of Google

Tags: Eco-Myths | Google

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