How Big Is Your Tech Footprint?

So we’re destroying the planet one Google search at a time – yes indeed, Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross has conducted research into the environmental impact of "googling". It’s a subject that did the rounds last week – I thought I’d wait for the dust to settle before commenting. For those who didn’t catch it at the time apparently (or perhaps not) his research found that;

a typical Google search on a desktop computer produces about 7g (0.25oz) of carbon dioxide

Perform two searches and the Brits among us could boil a kettle of tea while our US readers could run their aircon for about 5 seconds and our New Zealand readers could fire up the barbie for a second or so.

As Om so rightly says, why pick on Google? We’re the ones who utilise the technology, and seeing the abysmal energy efficiency us in the Western world display in our homes and workplaces, a Google search or two pales in comparison to the aforementioned air conditioning, the 8000 square foot palaces we live in and the Jacuzzis we insist are our God given right to own and (sometimes) use.

TechCrunch also goes into bat saying that;

A single book runs around 2,500 grams of CO2, or more than 350 times a Google search. By some estimates, a single cheeseburger has a carbon footprint of around 3,600 grams – over 500 times larger than a Google search. Granted, meat in general has a notoriously large carbon footprint, but if you’re genuinely concerned about your environmental impact then try cutting a burger from your diet every week and search guilt-free (you may even lose a few pounds).

But let’s look at that poor defenceless Google search. A significant proportion of searches (leaving beside porn, vanity searches and the Paris Hilton brigade) are for information gathering. If I look at where I would have found that information formerly – much would have been in libraries or home encyclopaedia sets – the carbon footprint of a 24 volume Encyclopaedia Britannica in every second household makes Google’s impact pretty minor really.

Google themselves (and rather surprisingly I might add) joined in the fray and gave a nice little example of why, if we’re wanting to save the environment, we look to ourselves first;

In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. The current EU standard for tailpipe emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometer driven, but most cars don’t reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometer (0.6 miles for those of in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.

The originator of the entire discussion, Wissner-Gross himself, finally came forward and denied making those comments. The ground was even more muddied by the fact that he in (as well as being a scientist) an entrepreneur who own a business tracking the carbon dioxide statistics of computing – oh what a tangled web we weave….

So again, let’s limit the hyperbole. Yes there is an impact from our IT use, as there is an impact from everything we do – but before we step back to the world of the luddites, let’s use this technology to solve some of the pressing problems of the world.


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Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. His business interests include a diverse range of industries from manufacturing to property to technology. As a technology commentator he has a broad presence both in the traditional media and extensively online. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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