Not Quite The Full Story On The Environmental Impact Of Google Searches

from the think-it-through dept

It appears that one of the big stories over the weekend was some research that apparently explained the carbon footprint of a Google search. Basically, each search is the same as boiling a cup of tea. Of course, what’s left out of the article is the fact that this is rather meaningless unless compared to what the alternatives are — and whether or not those searches also end up increasing or decreasing carbon footprints in other ways. So, if by doing searches on Google, I don’t need to drive all over town to find information or buy something — then that would be a net positive. If a Google search helps me gain additional information that later lets me decrease my carbon footprint, that’s also a net positive. Alternatively, doing Google searches could also increase my carbon footprint by making me do something else — but looking at just the carbon footprint alone seems a bit meaningless. Furthermore, this seems to be taking a (mostly) fixed cost and assuming it’s a marginal cost, which leads to some dangerous thinking. Yes, if fewer people did searches, Google wouldn’t need so many computers, but not doing a search isn’t going to suddenly save on the carbon footprint. Update: The author of the study is pretty surprised about how much attention the study is generating, noting that the original article took the results totally out of context. The study itself never even mentions Google (or cups of tea) at all. In fact, he suggests that whoever wrote the article had some sort of axe to grind with Google.

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Comments on “Not Quite The Full Story On The Environmental Impact Of Google Searches”

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38 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“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.”

Just boiling keetle of tea seems a bit flimsy evidence, if they don’t give an accurate representation of the amount of tea, temp, how much carbon it produces over a period of time, ect.

mkam (profile) says:

I read this this weekend and it was painfully obvious that this only covered 1 side of the equation. Think of all the newspapers that aren’t getting printed anymore, and all of the CDs that people are not buying because everything is digital. I would like to see a study that actually tried to see if google was a net gain or net negative.

beckerist (profile) says:

Re: irks my chain

You know what really irks me about this study too? Google is EXTREMELY tight-lipped about their setup. Hell, they don’t even release the LOCATIONS of their data centers!!!

No one* knows how much processing power Google is using
No one* knows what hardware Google is using
No one* knows what algorithms are used (ie: cached searches draw less power because it’s repeatable? more because it’s faster?)

* means no one “publicly”

I can go on, but you get my point. No one knows, these are all guesses. All fine and good when you’re playing Memory or Battleship but…pah, it’s not a study until I see some SOLID references. At this point it just seems like FUD.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Just more of the same...

More junk science, ala Algore. Make up any old statistics, put them in an official looking research paper, use your agenda to slant the results.

Do you have any evidence for claim that Alex Wissner-Gross fabricated data? If not, then it seems to me that maybe you’re the one making stuff up.

HEY, this guy should write for the New York Times!

HEY, you should write for Fox News!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Just more of the same...

Does the ‘research’ (and I use the term very loosely) author know how many computers are used for a single search? No, he does not. What he does is estimate from the basic and incomplete descriptions that Google has released of how its algorithm works. He is assuming what he does not know… This is the classic bogus science. It is estimate and nothing more.

Google has replied with their estimate as well, and given reasonable arguments to support it.

nasch says:

Re: Re:

It’s just a guess, but it looks like maybe even Google’s estimate is pessimistic. It sounds to me like they’re calculating the cost of a search by looking at the amount of time it takes the servers to execute it times the amount of energy they use during that time. If that’s true (and like I said, I’m guessing because they didn’t reveal their algorithm), then it probably grossly exaggerates the cost, because the servers would be using most of that power anyway even if you didn’t do that one search.

To be accurate, they would have to calculate how much *more* energy they would use to do one more search. As Mike said, fixed vs variable. But then again, maybe that is what they are doing already.

Chronno S. Trigger says:

#@%$*#@ hippies

1) They take into account all of Google’s servers. Why not take into account all of the servers on the web. Without them Google would not exist.
2) They admit to not knowing how much carbon Google emits. The servers themselves don’t emit carbon, maybe Google has solar power.
3) They even take into account booting a PC. Why not count shutting it down, or playing a game that spurs the Google search?
4) They are posting on the Internet to bitch about the carbon emissions of the Internet. Is that not the true meaning of irony?

Anonymous Coward says:

Can we PLEASE stop with this ignorant GREEN crap?
Quit worrying about how much energy I use….

Want to be green? Go pick up all those plastic Wal-Mart bags that clog each and every city in this nation. Stop drinking plastic bottled water. Quit buying things in those ridiculous impossible to open plastic packages.

Big companies put out so much PLASTIC and garbage..but everyone is worried about the carbon footprint of a stupid SEARCH? Give me a break….

Its all just another way for someone else to CONTROL what you do and how you think. Grow up…buck the trend…think for yourself.

Mark Rosedale (user link) says:

Absurd Google saves carbon by me

This is just absurd if the suggestion is to stop googleing because of the carbon foot print, but I will say that I recently took a trip to NYC and I couldn’t have done it without Google. More importantly I used all public transportation thanks to Google implementing it into their maps program (I used it on my iPhone). So in the end Google saved a bunch of carbon by allowing me easy access to planned trips on the subway rather than using a car or taxi.

Right because I am says:

Re: and the other fairytale...

The “carbon” fairytale that we are ruining the earth and global warming will kill us all, take a look at their research and you will qickly find that if you follow their formula’s we should have all been dead by the 70’s…

Global warming and the theory of evolution are both big lefty lies.

snowburn14 says:

Re: and the other fairytale...

“The “carbon” fairytale that we are ruining the earth and global warming will kill us all”

Yes, because releasing billions of metric tons of greenhouse – buzz word, I know, but they are in fact real – gases into the atmosphere couldn’t possibly have an effect on the climate… But more importantly, carbon footprints aren’t just about global warming/climate change. They’re also a measure of how energy efficient we are (or aren’t). As their name implies, non-renewable energy sources won’t last forever. Until someone comes up with some more practical alternatives, we need to start limiting our consumption of fossil [carbon-based] fuels.

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