Web surfing on your coffee break: double climate trouble?

When you nip away from your computer for a cup of coffee, you can potentially accumulate a fair amount of bad environmental karma. You can overfill the kettle and thus use more energy than you need to to boil the water; you can while away a minute or ten chatting with your colleagues, but not have your monitor set to switch off after a few minutes of inactivity. But it seems that even a bit of web-surfing back at your desk can also harm the environment, albeit in less immediately obvious way. The computer on your desk is not the only one that you’re relying on for your browsing; to function, the internet needs lots of powerful, power-hungry computers, working hard 24 hours a day as they shuttle the latest celebrity news and Twitter updates from continent to continent, computer to computer. Add the power output of all of those servers and routers to the electricity used by the computer on your desk, and it starts to add up. Today, The Times reports on calculations by Alex Wissner-Gross (who also has his own say here) that a typical Google search generates about 7g of CO2. Since boiling the kettle for your cup of coffee produces about 15g of CO2, it doesn’t take much for you to double your environmental impact with a bit of procrastination..
I have no way of checking these figures (indeed, the article admits that they’re not based on anything provided by Google themselves Update: Hypocentre points us to Google’s response). I have no reason to doubt them either, of course, but I’m not sure how useful these numbers really are given that as I read it, the calculation is not simply for the Googling alone, but includes your own computer, which would probably be on anyway – the real question is, what’s the additional impact of using the internet? Still, it’s another example of the total environmental impact of what we do being harder to assess than we may think. If we’re thinking green, we might consider the computer on our desk, but possibly not the whole information infrastructure behind it – an infrastructure that is already generating more CO2 per year than the oft-demonised airline industry. It’s easier to grasp the harm that a jet airliner can do, because you see it overhead, and you fly places in it; the server farm, in contrast, is hidden away and detached from what we use it for.
Similar things seem to crop up all the time: food grown locally using mechanised farm equipment and fertilisers may sometimes have a bigger carbon footprint that crops grown the old-fashioned way overseas. The other week Maria informed us that home baking bread may not be very eco-friendly either. Making informed choices about reducing one’s carbon footprint seems fraught with difficulty, with good information often difficult to find. If anyone knows of any good sources of such calculations, let me know in the comments.

Categories: environment, public science
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Comments (10)

  1. hypocentre says:

    Google says it’s more like 0.2g.
    You could, however, hold your breath for 20 seconds while you google to compensate. (OK, that doesn’t quite work as you continue to generate CO2 while holding your breath but it does show something of the scale of CO2 we are talking about here).

  2. Cuttlefish says:

    (Sorry–I tried to paste in my comment, but moveable type would not recognize it.)
    [Well, let’s give this a go… – Chris]
    Reading This Just Increased Your Carbon Footprint
    It’s getting to the point, these days, where looking at the news
    Is utterly depressing – it’s the information blues;
    Not merely the economy, although that’s bad enough;
    But politics, environment, and scientific stuff-
    For instance, just this morning as I had my morning cup
    And read the recent news reports I just had Googled up,
    I read a Harvard physicist (named Alex Wissner-Gross)
    Accusing me of murder (well, not really, but it-s close)!
    You see, my carbon footprint (which we know is really bad)
    Was growing with each Google search and coffee that I had!
    About the same for each of them, at roughly seven grams—
    I looked around and saw… I’m part of several other scams!
    My clothing uses pesticides, and fertilizers too,
    Synthetics from petroleum and other sorts of goo;
    My jacket and my shoes were made from something that had died
    And someone earns a buck a day to make stuff from its hide
    The other night I had a roast, a fine New Zealand lamb,
    About as far as possible to ship to where I am-
    I’d love to have some swordfish, but there’s hardly any left,
    Though still so cheap to buy it that it might as well be theft.
    My cellphone, so they tell me, is a cause of global war
    For coltan and cassiterite, and other metal ore –
    The cost of its convenience isn’t one I have to bear;
    The tragedy, of course, all happens way, way over there.
    My TV set, my microwave, my fridge, my stove, my car,
    Each everyday convenience (all the work’s done from afar)
    Is making me my own environmental wrecking crew –
    Including, as it happens, this here verse I write for you.

    I’ll try to shrink my footprint, and report on how it goes:
    First, clothing – I’ll run naked through the January snows;
    I’ll walk to work – no driving, and my bike is from Brazil,
    Not local manufacture, so it hardly fits the bill;
    I’ll turn off light, and shut off heat – or hold my class outside,
    Reduce our carbon footprint, but increase our civic pride!
    I can’t go to the store, because I’m giving up my car
    But walking there’s a nightmare – I can’t carry stuff that far.
    I’d have it all delivered, but I cannot make the call;
    I’m giving up my cellphone, cos of genocide and all.
    Besides, when they deliver, it’s this big enormous truck…
    No wonder most Americans choose not to give a fuck.

  3. Lockwood says:

    I was going to post the link that Hypocentre already has up, but I also wanted to remark that I think your approach regarding the additional or marginal carbon change is a smart one. That is, rather than just saying “how much CO2 will this action release,” ask “how will the CO2 release change if I choose this action over some other action.” Even at 7 grams (which seemed way too high), using Google is a superior environmental choice compared to driving to the library.

  4. Maria says:

    Have you seen Blackle? It purports to save energy by switching Google’s default white background to black.
    Honestly, though, the difficulty of doing calculations like this is one of the big reasons I favor a carbon tax or cap’n’trade mechanism – it’s much easier if we can just assume that the carbon costs of things are included in the price.

  5. Chris Rowan says:

    Lockwood – I thought it was a bit high, too – which made me wonder a little about the fact that both Wisner-Gross and the other guy who gives similar figures in the article both front carbon offset concerns.
    Maria – indeed so; although I think getting some sort of feel for these things might be helpful, given that it would be oh so easy for unscrupulous characters to sneakily hike their prices whilst erroneously blaming it on carbon taxes…

  6. Maria says:

    given that it would be oh so easy for unscrupulous characters to sneakily hike their prices whilst erroneously blaming it on carbon taxes
    Would it? Maybe I have too much trust in the free market, or maybe I am too cynical about the current state of economic oligarchy… but I think if people could really get away with “carbon taxes”, they are probably currently getting away with “liability insurance” or “unions” or something else to that effect.

  7. ScienceWoman says:

    Have you seen Blackle? It purports to save energy by switching Google’s default white background to black.

    Think of how much carbon Sb could save if we switched over to black backgrounds…

  8. Dunc says:

    I can see that a black background would use (very) marginally less energy when viewed on a CRT, but I don’t think it’ll make a damn bit of difference on an LCD. The back-light is either on or off.