So, I’m confused. The Times, on Saturday, ran a startling story, claiming that two Google searches cost the same amount of carbon as boiling a kettle. The story was dynamite: Google, previously only evil in China, might actually be evil everywhere. The story begged a question: if googling was environmentally problematic—what about other online activities, like sending email? The story, also, had the strong whiff of BS about it. To be more precise, it claimed that: “physicist Alex Wissner-Gross says that performing two Google searches uses up as much energy as boiling the kettle for a cup of tea.” The journalist then slightly undermined this by saying that, actually, no one—including Mr Wissner-Gross—really knew how much energy it took (in watts, or cuppas) to do a Google search, because Google were terribly secretive about how much energy their data centres used. I emailed a friend, who handily works for Google, asking if the entire thing was bunk.
He said it probably was, largely because you’d need lots of other bits of knowledge to make the google/cuppa calculation, including: the number of searches per period (which changes), the amount of energy consumed in same period, the carbon intensity of said energy consumed, the optional discount for carbon offsetting, and so on and so forth. So the story looked dubious. This morning, the Google rapid rebuttal team moved into the fray, defending itself:
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 in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.
Which all clears up something, but says nothing in terms of cups of tea. Indeed, the whole cuppa/google comparison is strangely absent from their defence. Elsewhere Mr Wissner-Gross also tried to set the record straight, saying his data—opaque though it was on matters of tea—had been misinterpreted. But, at base, we still don’t know how many cups of tea you have to cut down on to continuing googling at the same rate. Can anyone help? If not, working journalists and normal people alike face the daunting prospect of environmental guilt infusing everything we do.