Are You Warming the Earth with Google Searches?

by Krishna on January 14, 2009


The Times (UK) has an item on the environmental effects of Google searches. Apparently, each Google search takes up the equivalent of half the energy of boiling a kettle. The report also cites a Gartner report that the global IT industry generates greenhouse gases as the world’s airlines.

This is a discussion worth having, but the report does not tell the entire story. Internet activity does not use carbon-based fuels directly. The power involved can be entirely generated from renewable energy sources. Many data centers are located near such sources such as hydro-electric power. In addition, new technology is more power-efficient: Laptops replacing desktops, smart phones taking on more Internet activity.

Internet activity is also fast replacing many activities that use carbon energy. Newspapers are going out of business as people move to online news sources. Unnecessary business travel is reduced as telecommuting and video-conferencing becomes common. Books, CDs, movies, photo prints: Everything solid is being replaced by bytes on some disk somewhere.

And, there are so many ways that Google searches reduce energy consumption:

  1. Reducing time spent by people (especially programmers) re-inventing the wheel.
  2. Eliminating the need for trees cut down to build telephone directories, encyclopedias, travel guides, etc.
  3. Avoiding waste by helping people make the right choices in buying products and services.
  4. Making people smarter by pointing them to authoritative information instead of Internet quacks (black hat SEO notwithstanding).

Practically, though, total energy consumption is less important than energy consumption from carbon sources. Electronic activity may increase energy consumption, but if it reduces activity that requires carbon sources, then the transition is good, when accompanied with increasing energy generated from renewable energy sources.

[After writing this article, I read Google's reply to the article. Google claims that one search is the equivalent of 0.2 grams of CO2, or for every 3 feet driven by a car. Also more details on Google’s climate change initiatives.]

[Image licensed using a Creative Commons license from Roberto Rizzato]

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