Why Pick On Google? How Green Are We The People?

37 Comments

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.

googledatacenters

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.

37 Comments

Roman Geyzer

Much like our own bodies, Earth is simultaneously complex, resilient, yet fragile. There are millions of bacteria and foreign organisms in our bodies, yet our body adapts and copes…but only to a point. Pushed too far, and we fall ill or die.

Earth is the same in this regard. We can’t fully understand all the ways in which we are impacting our planet. Climate change is but one aspect of how we impact Earth but our nascent understanding of this does not take anything away from the other ways we affect our planet. The bottom line is that all of the impact points are critical to understand because for Earth to maintain a relative state of homeostasis, we must understand how we affect it and learn to enjoy our lives with minimal detriment to our environment.

This doesn’t mean we have to shun buying Plasma TV’s and computers. It doesn’t mean we should stop using Google because they use a lot of electricity. It does mean that we need a full-court press of government and private investment to move our economy towards clean energy.

One final note. I know there are some folks that still present the argument that there is no solid “proof” that climate change is real. That we could all be wrong about CO2’s affect on global climate. I’m a big fan of Pascal’s Wager and this is a perfect opportunity to apply the concept. Let’s assume there is a 50/50 chance of being either right or wrong about global warming. What should we believe? Let’s suppose that climate change is a hoax and we waste billions/trillions of dollars investing in alternative energy. The worst that can happen is we burn a lot of cash and see a shift away from middle-east oil towards home-grown energy. But what if climate change is FOR REAL and we do nothing? No one really knows for sure how bad the effects might get, but we know its a lot worse than burning some cash.

ronald

Nature will always change. People have made the stupids mistakes by trying to force a perceived picture of Nature. Case in point, wild fire suppression.
So just looking at climate change or just worrying about lost species will just accelerate the suicidal path we are on as a species. It’s a complex problem instead of a linear one were you can solve one problem at a time.
@Randy
Where I live cats have a survival rate of nil outside, one word Foxes. Only if we try to force Nature to be “nice”, by eliminating predators do they become a problem. Learn to live with Nature instead of trying to force it to look like your perceived view of how it should be. Your state must have some weird definition of Wilderness. Nature is not a place where everything survives, including our own species.

Randy

Mr. Malik, I agree, but with all due respect, I think these ‘small changes’ folks are being continuously urged to make by our media are all sickeningly irrelevant.

Last month, for example, I spent $250 replacing every 13-23 watt CFL light bulb in my house with 1.5 and 3 watt LED bulbs. 35 in total, and my entire house is now lit beautifully for less than 80 watts. Did I do this for my environment? because Katie Couric asked me to? No.

Oh, but Let’s say by some miracle I DID replace my bulbs with low-E LEDs “for the environment”, and by some miracle that it WAS because of Katie Couric. In fact, let’s imagine that Katie Couric, in one of her on-air carbon rants, managed to convince not only me but EVERY American citizen to do the same as I did last month. Mr. Malik, what do you think would be the net ecological impact?

Negative!

Because at the end of Couric’s telecast, as a result of her decision to rant for 6 valuable broadcast minutes about the dangers of CARBON DIOXIDE instead of POACHING, 65% of cat owners in this country would be emitting less harmless carbon dioxide, but meanwhile all these millions of TV viewers would STILL be unaware their outdoor cats murder BILLIONS of small mammals and birds every year, some species of which are now EXTREMELY endangered, such as the Amargosa Vole in California.

In short, Mr. Malik, it has NOT been demonstrated that man’s puny carbon dioxide emissions have ever resulted in the death of a single animal. On the other hand, we have witnessed OVER AND OVER poaching and habitat destruction result in the extirpation and EXTINCTION of species.

Do you see what is wrong here?

I’m a housing developer. WHY AM I ALLOWED to rip apart my state’s few remaining tracts of wilderness to build my housing developments, but meanwhile for god sakes I am NOT allowed to buy a high-wattage Plasma TV? THE DIRECTION THE MEDIA IS TAKING US IN IS SICK!

Om Malik

Randy

For whatever reasons you did what you did, incidentally and inadvertently did good and that’s what that matters. I am not suggesting you listen to what others have to say – you do what you do, live your life and don’t deny yourself anything. What you don’t do is waste. I think that was the point of my post.

Apart from that I have really nothing to say. Congrats on the new and beautiful LED bulbs in your house.

malang

When the Elephant Roams, dogs bark.

People would find stuff every now and then to criticize Google. They might not be perfect but they are one of the most ethical and responsible company around.

Leave them alone.

ronald

@N Marcus
So should we just concentrate on climate change?
Meanwhile the Bees are dying, maybe because of climate change or something else, like a virus due to stress in their habitat. So we are going to starve to death in a nice balanced climate. Which won’t happen since the death of the insects will change our climate, so we try to fix it some more. Oh we are already dead.
Fixing one problem in a complex system doesn’t help much, we have to acknowledge that we have more then one problem. At least that’s how I read it. Or I could “buy” some carbon credits by shooting Elk, actually haven’t seen any today. Does 2 Mule deer (300-400 pound each ) count?

N Marcus

” focusing on biodiversity’s major causes (irrelevant to claims about climate disruption)”

Sorry, meant to say “bio diversity’s major threats”..

N Marcus

Randy wrote:
“CO2 is NOT a pollutant!

Once again, for all you “global warming” obsessed people, listen carefully:

The greatest threat to biodiversity on Earth..”

A bit off topic, no?

Of course we should care about biodiversity, and CO2 cannot be simply defined as pollutant, but why change the subject? Who said anything about such a specific topic as “biodiversity”?

If I didn’t know better, I might just start to think you are trying to create disingenious confusion about environmental issues and global climate change/disruption by using some demagogue tactics and clouding the issue, such as referring to the fact that CO2 can’t be called a pollutant (irrelevant to climate disruption), focusing on biodiversity’s major causes (irrelevant to claims about climate disruption) and consistently using the old terminology of “global warming” instead of the using the preferred terms “climate change” or “climate disruption”.

..But hey, who am I to come in the way of some good old fashioned astroturfing..

rohit

technically speaking, the extra act of search wastes incrementally deminimis energy. i presume your PC is already on and more importantly so is the packet stream back to the closet switch and on to the layer 2 switch and on to the IP edge router and the core router and the associated line cards of every piece of transmission gear involved. the switches/routers/transport linecards dont even power down when you leave your offices. so lets go address the overall power consumption issue at various levels, not just ‘do less searches’ to be green. there are at least two ways to cut power consumption for ‘net’ hardware — lower power designs and circuitry that powers off components when not required and at a higher level, powers off linecards and even whole racks of switches when ports are inactive.

Celeste LeCompte

@Richard Walker — thanks for catching the “Pirius” typo. (As for Google is/Google are, a quote is a quote, so it will stand.)

Om Malik

@Roman

I think you make very valid points and I hope that folks like Google continue to make an effort.

@Randy,

What you say is right but CO2 pollution is also an issue. As I have said in my post – we can make small changes to our lives and see if they have a positive impact. Yes, species vanish because of all those things you mention – and we the people are just accelerating the vanishing — whatever the reasons.

randy

CO2 is NOT a pollutant!

Once again, for all you “global warming” obsessed people, listen carefully:

The greatest threat to biodiversity on Earth is **NOT** our 12,500 year-long 0.43% increase in carbon dioxide. NOT EVEN CLOSE! Rather, the greatest threats to biodiversity on Earth are:

1) Habitat Destruction/Fragmentation
2) Poaching
3) Pollution

Habitat destruction!! Poaching!! Pollution!!

NOT Carbon Dioxide!!! CARBON DIOXIDE IS NOT A POLLUTANT.

Species VANISH because of habitat destruction, poaching, and pollution.
NOT CARBON DIOXIDE.
NOT CARBON DIOXIDE.
NOT CARBON DIOXIDE.

Mathieu Ramage

I share your opinion Om.
And now we also know that you’re going to the gym.
Way to go!

Mathieu

ronald

I live next to county park, which borders a State park, which goes over into a National Forest, which goes into a Wilderness. And every time we vote there is a ballot to buy more land, which we normally do.
So I guess to offset my typing I can go out and shoot an Elk, that will do for a week. To the deforested Europe, go and plant a tree.
Oh we relocated 6 Mountain Lion last week alone, since that takes cars, we just should have killed them. But then we would have more Elk, more to shoot to offset my footprint (whoohoo). We have already to may Elk, which by the way kill trees. Problem is, I don’t have a gun, and we try to live with Nature.

Point is, it’s not that simple.

Roman is right.

Roman Geyzer

Some folks seem to be framing this discussion as though its an attack on city dwellers and telecommuters. I don’t see it that way and don’t think people should be taking this personally. This is more about what the major search engines can do to reduce THEIR footprint.

Francesco

In Europe, digital people are probably one of the last group of people to blame for polluting the environment. They are mainly metropolitan, use public transportation to move around, have small flats to maintain warm during the winter, recycle most of the rubbish (at least plastic, glass and paper), don´t use or use very little air conditioned.

In US is different. Over there I see, even in Silycon Valley, SUV strolling around all the time, 25 degrees in the winter and 18 in summer, monitors and lights on all the time. Look at this map and get sad. Nothing personal, I love US, but hey, start desintoxicating from energy consumption before is too late.

Lucke

And if the alternative to a google search is to jump into the car and go to the local library? Which one is preferred? And which one yields the better result?…

Roman Geyzer

This is an interesting topic to explore as we consider the fact that as search engines’ indexes continually grow, so must the computing requirements and, therefore, the carbon footprint. With each passing year, the volume of new online content that is created increases, so one could also argue that this is an accelerating problem. Who’s to say that in 10 years, the 7 grams doesn’t grow to 100 grams. 30 searches a day x 100 grams = 3000 grams…roughly the same as driving 11 miles (According to Om’s numbers) a day. On a macro level, we are talking about a lot of pollution potential.

So the real question is…will Google as well as the other major search engines invest enough in infrastructure improvements that seek to minimize the use of pollutant energy sources? Right now, Google has sufficient capital to generate ALL of its energy from renewable sources given a willingness to make such investments. The reality, however, is that they are a publicly traded company and have a fiscal obligation to their shareholders to use their capital in a manner that will generate the most possible profit. We will see what balance they find between “don’t be evil” and being a corporate titan.

jim

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.

Tarun Dua

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.
-Tarun

Meryn Stol

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.

reg4c

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

Lasha

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!

Mike Cerm

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.

jamesonhuckaba

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?’

Monica

“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
http://www.countspin.com

Cyndi Smith

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!

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