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The Carbon Footprint Of Google Searches Revealed

January 11, 2009

A Harvard University physicist has determined a way to measure the carbon footprint of performing a search on Google.

“A Google search has a definite environmental impact,” said Alex Wissner-Gross, who conducted research on how much power is demanded by a typical search.

He found that a normal search generates about 7g of CO2.

The reason, Wissner-Gross said, is that “Google operates huge data centers around the world that consume a great deal of power.”

Most people who click over to Google don’t even consider that their searches may have a measurable consequence on the environment.

Google is secretive about its energy consumption and carbon footprint. It also refuses to divulge the locations of its data centers. However, with more than 200 million Internet searches estimated globally daily, the electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions caused by computers and the Internet is provoking concern, according to a report on Sunday in The Times of London.

The global IT industry generates about 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, or about as much greenhouse gas as the world’s airlines, according to a recent Gartner study.

“Data centers are among the most energy-intensive facilities imaginable,” said Evan Mills, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

A typical phrase search on Google requires information to be sent to servers across the globe, which demands a high amount of energy and generates high levels of CO2.

Wissner-Gross has submitted his research for publication by the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and has also set up a Web site aimed at “making websites green.”

Still, Google maintains that it is among the most efficient of all Internet search providers.

“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,” he said.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch, Rewiring the World, has calculated that maintaining a character (known as an avatar) in the Second Life virtual reality game, requires 1,752 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That is almost as much used by the average Brazilian.

“It’s not an unreasonable comparison,” Liam Newcombe, an expert on data centers at the British Computer Society, told The Times. “It tells us how much energy westerners use on entertainment versus the energy poverty in some countries.”

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