15 Jan 2009 – What is the environmental impact of computing? How much CO2 is emitted every time you search Google? And how many people even realise that the global information technology industry as a whole is as big, in carbon dioxide terms, as global aviation?
That comparison would make Google the Heathrow or JFK of the internet – its global network of servers forms a communications hub through which every internet user in the developed world passes on their way to their destination. Google’s green policy matters, both in terms of actual CO2 emissions, but also in terms of its role as a global leader in its field. Yet on Sunday, a newspaper reported that just two Google searches generates the same amount of CO2 as boiling a kettle. That would mean the search giant might as well be flying 10 jumbo jets from London to New York every day, because approximately 242 million queries are processed over 24 hours.
The story was quickly seized upon by the technology community, and set the internet alight. Amidst all the subsequent hot air, Alex Wissner-Gross, the Harvard academic upon whose forthcoming research the story was supposedly based, claimed that he didn’t recognise the figures put next to his name. Google, meanwhile, hit back, too, and said that the correct figure wasn’t 7g of CO2 per search – it was 0.2g.
Talking to this newspaper, Wissner-Gross, an environmental fellow at Harvard said that, in fact, his research focuses on a much wider and more important issue, by trying to work out the carbon footprint of websites. Via his company, CO2stats.com, Wissner-Gross aims to make website bosses and users aware of the net’s environmental impact. The company awards sites who sign up a “trustmark”, upon which users can click to see the site’s carbon footprint, that of their own computer, and that of the network connecting the two. For any website above 50,000 users per month, the simple economies of scale mean that the carbon figures are dominated by individuals’ own computers.
“For a simple site without any video streaming, all a server has to do is send a copy to the network,” says Wissner-Gross. “Clients have to download it, power their display, etc – that side of the equation ends up consuming a lot more electricity.”
It was ironic, perhaps, that it was Google whose name was initially connected with the story. The company has made more strident efforts to be greener than many of its competitors, both by siting its server farms in parts of the world where they don’t need too much artificial cooling, and with the more exotic strategy of trying to develop a viable form of energy that is both sustainable and cheaper than coal, named RE<C. The company also has a project called RechargeIT, run through its philanthropic arm, Google.org, that aims to popularise the use of plug-in, electric vehicles. Neither of these are cheap areas of research in which to become involved.
The situation, he says, is analogous to air conditioning in cinemas. In the early 20th century, it was a way of differentiating one venue from another, but now artificial cooling is regarded as essential by customers.
In the meantime, however, Wissner-Gross says that, on average, “a typical website definitely has room for at least a 30 per cent increase in efficiency, whether that’s because of poor coding or compression or a range of factors”. Google may be leading the pack, but smaller websites have a considerable way to go. As the internet becomes more pervasive, such issues will only become more important.
And for those who consider that “Green IT” is a bandwagon that a global recession can ill-afford, Wissner-Gross makes an appealing point. “Websites load faster if they’re more efficient, and they cost their owners less money. You could make a moral argument for anything to do with the environment – but here being green is in everybody’s financial interest.”
That’s probably the real reason why a typical individual’s Google use, in a whole year, only produces about the same amount of CO2 as doing a single load of washing.
How to turn your computer green
What you can do to make your computer use more environmentally friendly
- Turn your computer off when it’s not in use. Make sure that your operating system’s energy-savings settings are correct.
- Try to make your machine last as long as possible – if it has ground to a halt, consider reinstalling the operating system afresh, rather than buying a new machine.
- When the time comes to buy a new computer, explore the green policies of a machine’s manufacturer. Apple, Dell and Asus claim they are leaders in this field.
- The bulk of your computer’s energy use is dictated by your power supplier, and many electricity and gas companies offer tariffs that use renewable sources.
- If you have a website, remember that every uncompressed picture and every badly written bit of code has a direct impact on the environment and on the time it takes a site to load. If your site is speedy, it will usually help its search rankings, too..
- When disposing of unwanted electronic equipment, remember that recycling it intact, for other people to use, is usually much better for the environment that dismantling it.
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