Will environmentalists turn on the Internet itself? Every Google search results in carbon dioxide emissions, and a Spanish artist/researcher created a website to quantify just how much.
According to Jana Moll, an artist and researcher based in Barcelona and Berlin, Google.com processes an average of 47,000 search requests per second, resulting in 500 kg of carbon dioxide emissions every second. This translates to 1.8 million kg per hour, 43.2 million kg per day, and 15.8 billion kg per year — 34.79 billion pounds or 15.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted per year.
“Data is very polluting,” Moll told Quartz. In 2015, Moll created a data visualization called CO2GLE, showing how much carbon dioxide has been emitted by Google searches on a second-by-second basis. The researcher based the platform off the 500 kg per second numbers, which boils down to 0.01 kg of carbon dioxide emitted per search request.
Last week, Moll introduced another visualization, called “DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST,” showing that every second spent on Google releases the carbon dioxide required for 23 trees to breathe. Contrary to her suggestion, this is not actually bad for the trees, which require carbon dioxide to survive.
When Quartz shared CO2GLE with Google, the company did not contest the math. In a 2009 estimate, the company said each query causes 0.2 grams of carbon dioxide emissions.
A spokesperson added that providing one user with one month of Google services generates about the same amount of emissions as driving a car for one mile. An average gasoline-powered automobile typically emits 8.91 kg of CO2 per gallon, and the average U.S. vehicle runs 24.7 miles per gallon, which would mean a car emits 360.7 grams of carbon dioxide per mile.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a typical passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons. Google’s annual search traffic burns the equivalent of 3.4 million U.S. cars, about one hundredth of the 264 million registered vehicles in America. Cars still release far more carbon emissions, but Google’s contribution is far from insignificant.
How do tech companies emit this much carbon dioxide? The Internet relies on millions of physical servers in data centers around the world, connected by undersea cables, switches, and routers, all requiring a great deal of energy to run. A 2015 study found that Internet activity results in as much carbon emissions as the global aviation industry.
Google has released reports about its carbon footprint, and has designed more energy-efficient data centers, invested in clean energy, and has launched numerous carbon-offset programs. The company’s spokesperson told Quartz that Google has been “carbon neutral” since 2007.
Google accounts for approximately 40 percent of the Internet’s carbon emissions, but other websites also significantly contribute. Facebook reported that its data centers and business operations resulted in 718,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2016. This is comparable to the annual emissions of 77,500 U.S. homes.
“What I’m really trying to do is to trigger thoughts and reflections on the materiality of data and materiality of our direct usage of the internet,” Moll told Quartz. “To calculate the CO2 of the internet is really complicated. It’s the biggest infrastructure ever been built by humanity and it involves too many actors…. [But they are] numbers that can serve to raise awareness.”
Environmental activists are unlikely to turn on the Internet over carbon emissions, just as Al Gore is unlikely to stop flying private jets due to his environmental activism.
In 2017, carbon dioxide emissions increased across the globe, but they dropped in the United States. Asian economies, meanwhile, accounted for two-thirds of the global increase in carbon emissions, with China, India, and Indonesia notable contributors. The European Union’s emissions also increased.
There are three trillion trees in the world, capable of absorbing 65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. Even so, seas absorb the most carbon dioxide — 93 percent of it, stored in algae, vegetation, and coral. Over earth’s history, carbon dioxide levels have risen and fallen, far exceeding current levels. Little is known definitively how man-made carbon emissions impact the global atmosphere, and many climate change models have failed to accurately predict the future.
If climate alarmists were serious about “saving the world” — as Bill Nye claims — they might think twice about searching on Google. Just like automobiles, the Internet has contributed a great deal to human flourishing, and even environmental activists are too smart to give that up in the name of saving the environment.