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Environmental Impact of Search and the Internet

The internet has become such an integral part of our daily lives that in many ways we hardly notice it any more. In the early days, there was much talk about the 'paperless' society and how the internet would have a beneficial impact on the environment. But recently, that view has been called into question. So what are the various claims about the environmental impact of the internet and what are the facts and figures underlying these claims?

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Alex Wissner-Gross (2009)

In 2009, Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross published a paper on the environmental impact of the internet. An article in The Times newspaper singled out this statistic from the report: each Google search has a carbon footprint of 7g of CO2, enough to boil half a cup of water. The article also quoted statistics relating to other Google services. For example, it claimed that watching a YouTube video produced 1g of CO2 for every ten minutes watched and a typical Gmail user would produce 1.2kg annually. The use of these statistics sparked an intense debate that has continued ever since.

Google's Response

Google disagreed with this assertion and produced evidence in a number of areas to back up their view.

ON its official blog, Google challenging the context of the statistics. The blog post claimed that even taking into account pre-search tasks such as building the search index, each search used 0.0003kWh (1kj) of energy, stating: 'For comparison, the average adult needs about 8000 kJ a day of energy from food, so a Google search uses just about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds.' 

Comparison with Tailpipe Emissions

Google also stated that each search only produces 0.2g of CO2, adding for comparison that this was significantly below the EU regulations regarding tailpipe emissions, and that 'the average car driven for one kilometre (0.6 miles for those in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.'

Further Comparisons

In order to add extra food for thought, Google went on to give several other interesting statistics for comparison:

  • CO2 emissions of an average daily newspaper (PDF) (100% recycled paper) = 85 searches
  • A glass of orange juice = 1050 searches
  • One load of dishes in an EnergyStar dishwasher (PDF) = 5100 searches
  • A five mile trip in the average U.S. automobile = 10 000 searches
  • A cheeseburger = 15 000 searches
  • Electricity consumed by the average U.S. household in one month = 3,100,000 searches

The Scale of Google's Operations

Google also felt that it was important to understand the scale of its operations when discussing the impact on the environment. Google conceded that their searches produced CO2 equivalent to running a domestic freezer for 5400 years and consumed enough energy to process 5.57 million loads of laundry (3,900,000 kWh). But the company argued that this should be viewed in context: their search engines processed 100 billion queries monthly (500 million times a day), and published results within microseconds.

Google's Green Credentials

However Google was also at pains to point out that it was not complacent about these figures and was taking a number of steps to reduce its carbon footprint and develop its green credentials.

Data centres are an essential element of the internet, and in particular to cloud storage solutions. 

What is a Data Centre?

A data centre is 'a large group of networked computer servers typically used by organizations for the remote storage, processing, or distribution of large amounts of data.' Stanford professor Jonathan Koomey has been studying the environmental impact of the internet since 2000, and has found that data centres account for between 1.1% and 1.5% of global electricity use. 

Why are Data Centres Better than Local Solutions?

Nowadays, more and more customers are turning to cloud storage to keep their data in a secure and central location. This has several benefits. It frees them from the necessity of running their own storage servers which are often old and inefficient. Central storage also makes data easily accessible from almost anywhere, allowing remote working for employees, and also ensuring data protection and security arrangements comply with regulations.

Google's Data Centres

How Much Energy do Google's Data Centres Use?

Google has gone to considerable lengths in an effort to make its data centres more environmentally friendly, resulting in data centres which are 50% more efficient than most others. Independent studies have verified that Google data centres only use around 0.01% of the world's electricity, equivalent to only 1% of Koomey's estimated figures. Considering that Google processes over 70% of all searches, this is proportionally very small.

What has Google Done to Make its Data Centres More Efficient?

Google has taken several actions to improve the efficiency of its data centres.

Streamlining the Search Process

Google has an entire department devoted to finding ever more efficient ways to conduct internet searches, which has been a critical factor in reducing its energy consumption. It believes that in the time it takes to complete a search, the user's home computer will use more energy than Google takes to process it.

Efficient Design

The use of green building technologies, including smart temperature controls, using natural cooling solutions such as outside air and recycled water, and smart architectural design, have all contributed to making data centre buildings extremely efficient.

External Verification

Google is the first large internet company to gain external accreditation for its commitment to providing safe workplaces, energy-efficient buildings and high environmental quality standards.

Google's Other Energy Saving Initiatives

Google calculates that providing all its services to an average user for one year requires the energy equivalent to driving a car one mile. When its carbon-offsetting programme is taken into account, this results in a carbon neutral situation.

The company has taken a positive approach to tackling environmental issues across its whole field of operations, including involving employees in suggesting and implementing green strategies and initiatives.

Renewable Energy and Carbon Off Setting

Google has actively collaborated with its energy suppliers to make the company's energy use as green as possible. 35% of Google's energy now comes from renewable sources, including deals with local wind farms and installation of 1.9 MW of solar panels producing 3 million kWh of energy annually. It also actively invests in renewable energy projects around the world to encourage greater use of clean energy. Google practises carbon-offsetting for the remaining 65%, making its overall operations carbon neutral.

Energy Efficient Buildings

Google works with architects to design its buildings with green and sustainable features, such as maximising natural light, installing efficient energy systems and eliminating dangerous materials. Over 4 million square feet of its buildings have been granted LEED Green Certification status.

Green Transport Solutions

Google provides a bio-fuelled shuttle service, electric car charging points, and a car-sharing scheme for its employees, resulting in a reduction of private vehicle use to the tune of 5,700 vehicles and saving 87 million vehicle miles each year. Co-workers who cycle or walk to work can designate a charity to receive company donations

Google's Wider Initiatives

Google is also committed to working with partners to reduce carbon emissions on a wider scale. For example, it co-founded the Climate Savers Computing Initiative (2007), focused on reducing global computer CO2 emissions.

The environmental impact of the internet as a whole

However, Google is just one cog, albeit a large one, in the internet machine as a whole. What is the environmental impact of the internet overall?

The Internet in Daily Life

The modern public demands to be connected to the internet seamlessly for almost every aspect of their everyday lives. It is inconceivable that today's businesses and individual users would not be able to access the internet quickly and efficiently via a host of different gateways, including mobile devices. Many government services, such as applying for tax credits or payment of Child Benefit, can only be done online. Almost every other area of daily life, including diverse tasks such as banking, reading, shopping, and making travel arrangements, are increasingly taking place online.

How Much has the Internet Expanded?

The internet has expanded at an astounding rate to meet this ever-growing demand. For example, internet usage has increased dramatically:

December 1995 – the internet had 16 million users (0.4% of global population)

March 2014 – the internet had an estimated 2,937 million users (40.9% of global population)

In theory, if growth continued at that rate, the whole world could be online by 2017.

In what Ways is the Internet Used?

Who is Using the Internet?

Internet usage can be broken down into the following age bands:
Usage of all adults by percentage in 2009:

  • Age 16-24 – 15%
  • Age 25-34 – 18%
  • Age 35-44 – 20%
  • Age 45-54 – 15%
  • Age 55-64 – 15%
  • Age 65+ - 18%

The age profile of those using the internet the most is between 25 and 44 years. 

How Much Time is Being Spent on the Internet Each Week?

In May 2010 the UK Adult's Media Literacy Report showed that the average amount of time spent by individuals on the internet each week has been rising steadily for personal use.

  • 2005: 6.6 hpw
  • 2007: 8.2 hpw
  • 2009: 8.4 hpw

However, work-related or academic use rose slightly by 2007 but had fallen by 2009:

  • 2005: 3 hpw
  • 2007: 3.3 hpw
  • <li2009: 3.1="3.1" hpw

The report also found that men spent an average of 4.5 hours longer than women on the internet, with men more likely to access it at work whilst the women accessed it mainly at home.

What are the Reasons for People Using the Internet?

People use the internet for a wide variety of reasons, including for fun or relaxation, but the most popular reasons were for 'finding out and learning things' (76% of all adults), and maintaining contact with people (60%). Men were more likely than women to use the internet to stay informed about news (47% compared with 32%), and sports (36% compared with 9%), but in other activities, results were broadly similar.

Which Activities Were Carried out at Least Once a Week?

The study also compared the activities carried out on the internet in 2007 and 2009. The main activities carried out at least weekly were:

  • Communication
  • Transactions
  • Work / study information
  • Social networking
  • Entertainment
  • News
  • Leisure information
  • Public / civic

Activities such as communication, leisure information, communication and news remained broadly the same. There was a significant rise in the use of social networking (19% - 35%), and in accessing the internet for entertainment (19% - 35%). Work-related or academic activities fell slightly from 40% to 36%. Online transactions also fell (41% - 37%), but the study concluded this could be due to the effects of the recession.

How Does all this Internet Activity Impact the Environment?

Mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets now give users almost limitless internet access, and people in many developing countries are also getting online. Use of the internet is increasing significantly and looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future. But what is the impact of all this connectivity on the environment? This topic is the subject of much debate and there are several aspects that need to be considered.

Why is it Difficult to Reach an Accurate Conclusion?


Interesting Video from Google on "How Green is the Internet"

Experts agree that the process of trying to arrive at an accurate conclusion about the impact of the internet on the environment is difficult for several reasons. A 'data gap' between the figures necessary to make relevant comparisons, lack of standardisation in research methods, and issues around the transparency of data, all make the task of assessing its impact very difficult. However, some tentative conclusions have been drawn about the impact in some areas. 

What We do Know?

  • Energy consumption: The questions of how much energy is required to maintain the internet is a complicated one, and it's difficult to arrive at a definitive figure. Areas for consideration include the direct use of electricity by the internet (e.g. to conduct searches), the energy consumption of data centres, and the electricity required by the devices used for connection.
  • Direct use of energy by the internet: Jonathan Koomey Was a keynote speaker at Google's 'How Green is the Internet” summit held in June 2013. Koomey calculates that the internet probably uses around 10% of the world's total electricity consumption, but is keen to point out that this a complex area of study. 
  • Energy consumption by data centres: According to Eric Massenet (Associate Professor at Northwestern University), data centres account for the second largest amount of energy consumed, using between 1% and 2% of the world's electricity. The use of electricity by data centres doubled between 2005 and 2010, with the energy needed for cooling the building and powering systems accounting for most. Although IT systems are becoming steadily more efficient, Massenet believes this figure could be halved, but that the major barriers to achieving this are not technical but down to institutional reluctance. If companies were willing to streamline operations, abandon outdated and inefficient data servers, and migrate to the cloud, big savings could be made.
  • End user devices: It's universally agreed that end user devices account for the majority of energy usage. Individually, the amount used by devices may seem almost insignificant; desktops use 200 kWh per annum and notebooks 70 kWh per annum. But it's the sheer scale that makes such an impact, with 1.6 billion PCs and notebooks having online access in 2012, together with 6 billion mobile devices. Other peripheries such as wireless routers, phone systems, set-top boxes, and switches all consume electricity, along with display equipment such as monitors and Smart TVs, also use electricity. 

The Impact of the Growth in Mobile Devices

The growth in the use of mobile devices has changed the landscape of internet access almost beyond recognition. In 2010 there were around 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, and in 2012 equal numbers of tablets and PCs were shipped. Many people now prefer to access the internet on mobile devices, as they can stay connected all day and go online almost anywhere. 

How Much Energy do Mobile Devices Use?

Mobile devices use significantly less energy overall than traditional devices:

  • Mobile phones: 1-2 gWh/pa
  • Tablets: 10-12 gWh/pa
  • Laptop PC: 70 gWh/pa
  • Desktop PC: 200 gWh/pa

Embedded Emissions

The rise in popularity of mobile devices means that the issue of embedded emissions is becoming more important.

The Impact of Electronic Communications

Many people believe that electronic communication is good for the environment, but it's important to remember that even this has an impact. An article in Guardian Weekly (August 2011), draws on findings from the French environment and energy agency Ademe that reach some surprising conclusions. 

Ademe concluded that emails sent and received by each French employee generate an average 136kg of CO2, making an annual total of 13.6 tonnes for a company employing 100 people. Ademe arrived at this figure by taking into account the energy used by computers to send and receive the emails, the energy used by data centres and the energy needed for production of the electronic components. Furthermore, adding 10 recipients to an email quadruples the energy required, whilst practices such as storing and printing use further energy. However, the report also found that removing one recipient per email would reduce the employee's total by 44 kg per year.

But What About the Good Effects of the Internet?

internet-environment-infographic

Infographic by WordStream Internet Marketing

Measuring the benefits of the internet is also a complicated process, because it's difficult to balance all the 'negative' aspects against the positive impact. The facts and figures around the 'cost' of the internet on the environment should be balanced with the very positive benefits it brings towards environmental friendliness.

Information Technology Benefits the Environment

In a guest post on thinkprogress.org, Jonathan Koomey presents a very convincing argument that the internet has a positive impact on the environment. His detailed post gives a number of examples of findings from studies being mis-represented and statistics reported inaccurately. He states that many people believe that IT consumes a large amount of electricity and that this consumption is increasing at an incredible rate. Koomey argues that this is untrue: 'while computers use electricity, they are not a huge contributor to total electricity consumption'. 

Koomey cites the importance of continual striving towards better efficiencies to reduce the internet's energy footprint even further, but he also stresses the importance of taking into account the way computers have changed how the world goes about its business. For example, years ago we used vast amounts of paper to print books, newspapers, keep business records etc. but now the internet allows us to do this all electronically. The internet enables us to do things more efficiently, helping us to reduce our energy needs in other areas. Koomey believes this pay-off is crucial: 'Computers use a few percent of all electricity, but they can help us to use the other 95+% of electricity (not to mention natural gas and oil) a whole lot more efficiently'. Factors such as the impact of dematerialisation must be taken into account.

Ways the Internet Can Benefit the Environment

CD Purchasing vs Music Downloads

Koomey quotes a study from the Journal of Industrial Ecology contrasting purchasing a CD with downloading the music. When comparing the emissions produced from manufacturing and shipping the CD compared with downloading it, the study found that downloading the music produced at worst a 40% reduction in emissions, and in the best case scenario, an 80% reduction.

Working from Home

Koomey estimates that up to 40% of the US workforce could work from home. If this was actually implemented, it would be of massive benefit to the environment, but even if that 40% only worked from home for two days a week, it would still save around 53 million metric tonnes of emissions. This is equivalent to removing 10 million cars from the roads.

Email vs Snail Mail

Email has revolutionised how we communicate, both for business and for personal reasons. There has been recent discussion about how green email actually is, and las in other areas, there is much to take into account. Email is certainly faster, and the carbon footprint of a single email is considerably less than a letter. The Guardian newspaper (21 October 2010), calculated that the emissions caused by emails were:

  • Spam email: 0.3g CO2
  • Genuine email: 4g CO2
  • Email with attachment: 50g CO2

The University of Belgrano in Argentina concluded that the carbon footprint for producing a 4-page letter with envelope is 25g CO2. If that letter is collected and then delivered 400 miles away, the necessary stages in that process (such as transportation), add a further 3.37g CO2, making a total of 28.7g.

Other studies have shown that even taking into account the energy used to open, read, delete and store the email, the carbon footprint of an email is around 60 times less than that of sending a snail mail communication.

Critics argue that the sheer number of emails sent, combined with the impact of spam, means that direct one-to-one comparison is not helpful, and there is still much disagreement on the environmental impact of email use overall as opposed to snail mail.

Phone Call vs Text

Nowadays, many people use text as their first medium of communication rather than making a call, but how does the carbon footprint of a phone call compare with that of a text? The emissions produced by making a phone call are calculated to be 57g CO2 per minute, compared with just 0.000003g CO2 for a text. Again, some prefer to view the situation overall rather make a like-for-like comparison. For example, people may send a flurry of texts in a 'text conversation' which could be communicated easily in a short phone call, but overall, it seems that text has considerably less impact than calling.

So What is the Environmental Impact of the Internet?

A quick internet search will reveal that opinions are sharply divided on the actual impact of the internet on the environment. This is further complicated by the difficulty in obtaining reliable and broadly agreed data with which to examine the problem. Experts such as Koomey have spent many years studying this issue, and although he has been able to reach some reasonably firm conclusions, he also claims his research is often used of context or misrepresented, especially by the media. 

There is certainly an argument that it's impossible to judge the impact of the internet on the environment simply by calculating the supposed use of energy or its carbon footprint, without taking into account the myriad of other changes and influences that the internet has had on almost every aspect of our lives. This is a difficult and complex discussion.

Ultimately, at least for the foreseeable future, it's impossible to reach an informed decision based on agreed scientific research that can address all aspects of the equation properly. And with the ever-changing scenario, perhaps it's possible that this is a question we shall never be able to answer fully.

Sources and Further Reading

Google's Carbon Footprint

Google discloses carbon footprint for the first time - The Guardian

'Carbon cost' of Google revealed - BBC News and Technology

Two Google searches 'produce same CO2 as boiling a kettle' - The Telegraph

Powering a Google search - Official Google Blog

Energy and the Internet - Official Google Blog

Google Search scratches its brain 500 million times a day - Cnet

Is the Internet Hurting Our Environment? - Word Stream

Data Centers and their Impact

How a Data Center Works - SAP Data Center

Data Centers - Google

Solving for sustainability - Google

Google's Environmental Report - Google

Growth of the Internet and its Impact

Internet Growth Statistics - The Global Village Online

How Much Electricity Does the Internet Use? - Elecktor Magazine

Google’s Footprint: The Environmental Impact of Internet Searches - The Wall Street Journal

Scientist slams newspaper for Google CO2 report - Cnet

Does the Internet pollute the internet? - CCCB Lab (in Spanish)

Debunking the myth of the internet as energy hog, again: How information technology is good for climate - Think Progress

Web surfing, email and memory downloads take an environmental toll - The Guardian

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