Did you know that breathing for about 12 minutes emits roughly 7 grams of carbon dioxide into the air? According to a recent study conducted by Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist, that’s the same amount of carbon dioxide that’s emitted when you type in a […]

Did you know that breathing for about 12 minutes emits roughly 7 grams of carbon dioxide into the air? According to a recent study conducted by Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist, that’s the same amount of carbon dioxide that’s emitted when you type in a search on Google. So, if you didn’t search, you could be just a little bit nicer to the planet. Or, you could hold your breath while you’re searching, as Kevin Marks suggests.

By now, you must be wondering, what has gotten into Om? Nothing, really – I just wanted to give some context to Wissner-Gross’ research, which was reported in today’s Sunday Times and points out that every time you search on Google, it has an environmental impact.

“Google are very efficient but their primary concern is to make searches fast and that means they have a lot of extra capacity that burns energy,” Wissner-Gross told the Sunday Times. (Wissner-Gross, by the way, is going to be speaking at our upcoming Green:Net conference slated to be held in San Francisco on March 24, 2009, where we will explore the carbon emissions impact of networking infrastructure, as well as various other topics.) As Katie over at Earth2Tech points out, Google’s business depends on its search being the best, which means cutting carbon emissions can’t come at the cost of speed.

I am not an expert on energy, but all I can say is, if Google is a polluter, at least its doing something about it. Google is investing heavily into clean technologies and alternative energy, and is experimenting with new data center architectures that use wave power, for example.  Google also happens to be one of the most energy-efficient Internet companies. It recently released a report that boasted the energy efficiency of its data centers compared to typical data centers, though there were some doubts about the veracity of its claims.


Regardless, the point of the matter is that our increasingly digital lives do have an impact on our environment. As we have pointed out on Earth2Tech, everything from bad code to inefficient data centers adds to its ecological footprint.  Seven grams of Co2 might not seem like much — after all, a small car emits .59 pounds (or about 268 grams) per person, per mile. But consider how often you do a Google search. Personally, I don’t think twice about it. I don’t bookmark anything — I just search for it on Google. And I’m sure many of you do exactly the same.

In a blog post today, Urs Hölzle, Senior Vice President, Operations at Google responded to the charges by pointing out that “your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query.”

As Nick Carr says, it’s not about Google, “It’s about us.” The fact of the matter is that we waste a lot of energy – especially those of us who lead very digital lives.

In Silicon Valley, it is de rigueur to get a Toyota Prius (or if you are rich enough, a Tesla) — after all, you want to do something good for the environment! But at the same time, we are constantly using computers that are energy hogs. Our music systems, televisions, our endless tweets, our emails and our phone calls – everything has an impact. We are blissfully ignorant of the waste we create.

Why blame others? There have been times when I have forgotten to turn off my iMac, only to come home in the evening to see it still giving me a happy smile. That is not energy efficient. I am trying to be better every single day about my energy consumption. Every time I go to the gym, I see banks of monitors showing inane shows without a single person watching them. Sometimes I get angry enough and go around shutting off each one of them. Of course, the next day it is the same situation. I will keep trying till I get better about energy conservation.

Next time you quip that you can’t live without your computer, consider that maybe, you — and the planet — can’t live with it, either.

Google Data Center map courtesy of Pingdom via Wayfaring.

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  1. Very interesting article! But now I have go google google pollution.

    One very big disagreement is here:

    >> As Nick Carr says, it’s not about Google, “It’s about us.”
    >> The fact of the matter is that we waste a lot of energy –
    >> especially those of us who lead very digital lives.

    Many of us who lead these very digital lives never drive to work. How much of an environmental impact is that vs. the nano-polluting we do by tweeting, blogging, searching, emailing, and leaving our computers on “sleep”.

    Just for grins, I’m going to type away another paragraph and fly in the face of all that’s decent while those Prius owners “save the environment” by driving back and forth to work.

    Note: for good measure, I did hold my breath as long as I could.

    :) Seriously, thank you for sharing!

  2. “Waste not; want not” – as they say. Back in the day, the penalty for wastefulness was immediate. Waste water and you would have to make more frequent trips to the drawing well. The problem these days is that those who are the biggest consumers are also somewhat distanced from the visceral repercussions of wastefulness. Sure, in a roundabout way they pay a price – pollution, taxes, etc. but the disincentive is not immediate enough to create a conditioned habit of conservation. Maybe there should be a carbon credits cap-and-trade system among citizens as well? :)

    Monica Roy

  3. jamesonhuckaba Sunday, January 11, 2009

    There has always been a focus on efficiency, driven by motivators from profit margins to, relatively recently, environmental concerns. I think we can all agree that efficiency has its upside, but at what opportunity cost?

    How far is one willing to go to ensure that only the necessary emissions make their way into our atmosphere? I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I don’t want to wait twelve minutes for search results to come back from a basic web search.

    With that said, perhaps there are other ways we can counterbalance our excess energy usage through use of alternative/renewable energy sources and simple gestures such as creating more ‘green space’ – at which I am, admittedly, not very good. I don’t think the public concern is quite there yet, despite the latest trend of reducing our carbon footprints.

    Bottom line is that simply existing is going to have some sort of environmental impact. The question we haven’t clearly answered yet is ‘how much of an impact is allowable?’

  4. Certainly technology of any sort is going to have an impact. Even as regular people and the Googles of the world struggle to “green” their lives, we’re a long way off from being carbon-neutral. As technologists, we consume more than our fair share, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no hope, or that we are doomed to consume more and more.

    If you replace 5 incandescent bulbs with CFLs, you can offset the new plasma TV you just bought. We all switched from CRT to LCD monitors, and we got bigger displays that use less power. I have a desktop PC that idles at 90W, but I spend most of my time on my laptop. My old laptop had a 65W power-supply, and now I have a netbook that uses less than that much. When you think about it, any time I spend browsing the web on my iPhone, I’m actually saving energy!

    Yes, having all this stuff uses more energy than not having anything, but even if you give up every gadget you have, you’re still going to be consuming and using energy, and impacting the environment. You’ve still got to eat. If you want to do something good for the environment, become a vegetarian. We’ll never get to zero, but there are ways that we can continue to be technology enthusiasts, and still offset and minimize the impact we make.

  5. This has also been on my mind for the longest time. For over a year, now, I’ve been trying to be as “green” as possible. I shut off and unplug electronics when not being used, I don’t drive, I only run the faucet when needed, I’ve been taking speedier showers, I only charge when necessary, I try to keep my home efficiently insulated, amongst other things.

    I know we can’t ever be perfect and all, but like some of you have said, we have to do what we can. The more technology advances, the faster we will develop technology with smaller emissions. I am also anti-bad packaging. I recycle when possible, and don’t by products that aren’t recycled easily. Also, I think it’s way better to buy foods that are local and fresh, rather than foreign (another state/country) and packaged/canned – less to throw out in the end.

    A lot of my friends are teasing me for trying to be green all the time, but hey, I know what I’m doing is right, and eventually they will give in and start doing the same. I recently had more dimmers installed throughout my home as well; this way, I won’t have to fire the bulbs as full blast when it’s not necessary. Great post, Om!

  6. Google Search generates 7 gm of CO2 on every search hit by you | Internet Techies Monday, January 12, 2009

    [...] – OM [...]

  7. Why are they ripping at Google?
    I would probably bet that Yahoo! searches are a lot less efficient then Google ones
    Perhaps its the consequence of being the best :D

  8. Information Technology is actually our way out of this mess.
    Cars are a far bigger problem. If you can manage to work four days from home, one day at the office, you keep a truck load of carbon out of the air. Then, having piles and piles of gadgets, home electronics and computers plugged-in is not good either. Try to keep it at one pc (plus a router, or some other device) per person. Don’t leave appliances on standby, but unplug them fully.

  9. Agreed with Cindy, we who live a digital lifestyle are a lot more greener specially the ones among us who don’t commute to work. Also we need to understand that while datacenters might today be powered by coal/naptha powered power plants they can as well be powered by cleaner wind/solar/wave power but the battery/fuel cell operated cars are still a long way it seems.

  10. Ugh. This is stupid. The “green” movement is one of the most profoundly evil movements in the world. It’s a crap religion gussied up in pseudo-science. Global Warming is just the rapture for progressive morons.

    The environmentalists are just the scum of the earth and seem determined to keep the world poor and stupid. I wish the eco-crazies would hold their breath for 12 minutes. Please, reduce your carbon footprint to zero. Then the rest of us who actually make the world a better place can get along without your eco-fascist religious nuttery.

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