Is There a Hidden Cost to Google Searching?

Internet search results have become a part of everyday life in many parts of the world, making it easy for users to access the wealth of information available online. Leading the pack is Google, and their innovation in online searching has made them a household name. Ask anyone how they find something online and the answer invariably is “Google it”. Yet, even with its ubiquitous usage, nobody has considered what the environmental implications of a Google search are. Until now.

US physicist Alex Wissner-Gross recently brought the carbon cost of Google searching into the limelight, claiming that two Google searches produce 14g of CO2 – the equivalent of boiling an electric kettle. While these results seem insignificant by themselves, their implication becomes daunting when multiplied with the number of Google queries completed each day: Over 235 million.

It’s not intuitive that opening a web browser and clicking on the “Search” button would negatively impact the environment. So where are all these emissions coming from? According to the Harvard Academic, the carbon emissions stem from the electricity used by a combination of clients, networks, servers, home PCs and the large data centers operated by Google around the world.

Dr. Wissner-Gross singled out Google because it is a highly visible target. Their size and dominance over the search market is undisputed. However, as Wissner-Gross states in his article, Google isn’t any worse than any other data centre operator. All search engines have the same carbon footprint. Dr Wissner-Gross goes on to plug his website co2stats.com, which helps companies identify “energy inefficient” aspects of their websites, which begs the question whether Dr. Wissner-Gross’ estimates might be skewed in favor of his start-up business.

Google disagrees with Dr Wissner-Gross’ research, and claims that a typical search only produces 0.2g of carbon dioxide. Because a query result is returned in less than 0.2 seconds, the search itself only uses Google’s servers for a few thousandths of a second. According to Google’s research, this amounts to only 0.0003 kWh of energy per search – the equivalent of 0.2g of CO2.

Even though bookmarking web pages instead of repeatedly searching for them might save a couple grams of CO2, the real call to action is ensuring that the hardware within our IT environments is fully utilized, and that any opportunities to reduce wasted resources are acted upon. Regardless of the validity of Dr Wissner-Gross’ research, the message he’s conveying is important. Whether we’re upgrading a server chassis or just clicking through the internet, our every action has an environmental impact.

About Adam Galloway

Making more environmentally conscious purchases is one of the greatest powers we have in curbing wastefulness.