Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Every time you use Google, a kitten dies

Yesterday I saw a comment on Twitter that really threw me. As both a long-time consumer and creator of digital material and also a believer in climate change, this statement really made me stop in my tracks.

"Making two internet searches through Google produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle!!"

Pretty controversial stuff, and shocking if true. For anyone concerned about the environment, this could have major implications. If we want to 'do our bit' should we stop using Google? Presumably 'Bing' and the rest are no more efficient, so does this spell the end of web search completely? Perhaps we just have to abandon the internet altogether in order to save the world?

Or maybe this is just a made up fact designed to get attention? Hmmmm.

Well, a couple of boiling kettles later, I found the origins of this statement. It wasn't made up, it wasn't just a casual tweet created to generate interest and site hits (as if THAT would ever happen!) - turns out this factoid has been going around since the start of the year. And worryingly (well for me anyway) it can be traced back to an article on the Times - so a pretty reputable source of information. You can read it here - and it's replicated in full here for those who are less keen on the new Murdoch Paywall.

A whole bunch of other sites followed up on the story. Here it is on the Telegraph and on the BBC - among many others - and it's obviously still doing the rounds. (Note: by this point I've probably boiled about 6 or 7 kettles and killed a small polar bear).

So, a shocking statement backed up by some serious journalism. But to me, it still doesn't ring true. Is that because I'm too involved with the web and can't let go of my preconceived notions that digital information is actually a GOOD thing for the environment? (saving on paper / waste etc.) Perhaps, perhaps it's worth just one more kettle to find out.

A day after the original article appeared online (and a lot harder to find on Google) this article was published on the Technology News World site, which says:
The Times reporters wrote about a new Harvard study that examines the energy impact of Web searches. One problem: the study's author, Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, says he never mentions Google in the study. "For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google," Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld.

And the example involving tea kettles? "They did that. I have no idea where they got those statistics," Wissner-Gross said.
Obviously, Google weren't too happy with these statistics either, here's the view from their side.

Yes, of course computers use energy, but a single search is closer to 0.2 grams of CO2 and that's 35 times less than the Times article suggested. It's interesting to note that the original statement is still circulating around as assumed fact, while the refuting stories have a lot less impact - presumably because they're not associated with a bold, tweetable headline? Which in turn probably says something interesting about the dissemination of news as a whole, ie. the impact of sensationalism vs. more realistic (ie. more boring) information.

What have we learned here? Well, it's always important to check your facts - a growing problem now even within respected news journalism; if they don't do it, then we have to boil a few kettles and do it ourselves. Bias has a tendency to creep in - especially when people are trying to sell us news and there are always (at very least) two sides to every story.

Of course, while the figures reported are widely inaccurate, it does serve to remind us of the fact that using the internet does come with it's own environmental impact - and the more we use and rely on technology - the more PC's/Macs/iPhones etc. we buy - the more energy and CO2 we inevitably consume.

However, ultimately I think the moral of this particular story can be summed up neatly by the article that appeared on here:
"It would appear the London Times was trying to sell newspapers"
Shock news indeed.

Ben Jackson,
Head of Digital Media,

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