Counting the Cost of Pixels


If you were to update the list of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, the internet would almost certainly make the cut. With the exception of antibiotics I can think of very few other 20th century inventions that have changed society and people’s lives for good quite so profoundly.

Yet our digital addiction is also taking its toll on the environment. Coming up with hard numbers on a global scale is quite a challenge but that doesn’t stop people trying. A few days ago a UK Sunday Times article reported a surprising calculation that searching on Google – one of the most powerful web tools ever – uses far more energy than the rest of the web. Based on some publicly available information and a bit of guesswork, the article claims that it emits 7g of carbon per Google search – half the amount of energy needed to boil your kettle for a cup of tea. With more than 200 million web searches daily across the world, that’s a lot of tea. Apparently that compares with just 0.02g of carbon per second of browsing an ordinary website.

When I saw the article I was intrigued but cautious – the numbers are estimates and cannot be verified since Google is notoriously secretive and won’t even reveal the location of its servers. Also, I knew that it probably doesn’t adjust for a lot of variables such as the fact that Google is thought to buy a lot of machines and run them slowly (they do this for a techie reason but it’s also greener as it makes them chew up less power than would otherwise occur). Since then the story has been partially debunked – Google itself has rubbished the claim and the physicist quoted in the story says he said nothing of the sort and anyway he drinks coffee, not tea.

So phew, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and dismiss it as little more than an alarmist storm in a tea (or coffee) cup?

Perhaps not. There is a case for taking this opportunity to think about the carbon footprint of our computer habits. What we do know is that since 2007 the information technology and communications industry has emitted more greenhouse gas than aviation globally – and this figure is growing.

Computers and the internet are green when it’s replacing an offline activity that would also consume energy – such as printing a newspaper or magazine or driving to the shops. However, when it’s additional activity it’s a different story. Increasingly, we get our entertainment online or we might look up an online dictionary or encyclopaedia rather than use the one already on the shelf.

People often assume that reading things online is greener than reading something printed on dead trees. The reality is that it depends on how long you read something for because of the energy consumption. If you read the newspaper for less than 30 minutes a day, it’s greener to read it online, but beyond that it’s greener to read it in print, according to Swedish researchers. Reading it on an e-reader such as Amazon’s Kindle is greener still – but that’s purely in energy consumption and doesn’t look at the entire life cycle of the gadget.

I’m not saying that we should turn our backs on such a wonderful and useful tool as the internet – EcoSalon is a website, after all! But perhaps cutting back on our dependence is not such a bad idea – and don’t forget to turn your computer off (or set it to ‘sleep’ or ‘hibernate’ mode) if you’re leaving it for any length of time too.

Image: blupic