Tempest in a Tea Kettle: CO2Stats Founder Caught in Frenzy Around Environmental Costs of a Google Search

(Jan. 14, 2009—Further updated and corrected with comments from the Sunday Times of London and Alex Wissner-Gross—see below)

Updated and corrected, see below: I just got off the phone with Alex Wissner-Gross, co-founder of Cambridge, MA-based CO2Stats (the recent Y Combinator alumnus firm is run out of an apartment here in Kendall Square), who is at the center of what he calls an “international uproar” about the environmental impact of a Google search. He says that, contrary to published reports, he has not made any [[calculations about the specific environmental impact of]–phrase added for clarification on Jan. 14]  Google searches, the subject of a sensational report in the Sunday Times of London yesterday. But he is clearly reveling in all the attention—both for his startup and for its cause of raising awareness about the environmental costs associated with operating websites.

If you missed the firestorm of coverage yesterday and today, the Times yesterday ran a story claiming that every Google search results in the emission of 7 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches,” blared the Times headline. The subhead reads: “Physicist Alex Wissner-Gross says that performing two Google searches uses up as much energy as boiling the kettle for a cup of tea.” From the body of the article:

While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2 Boiling a kettle generates about 15g. “Google operates huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power,” said Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon. “A Google search has a definite environmental impact.”

The Times story and stories about it have dominated technology news aggregators like Techmeme and (ironically) Google Blog Search for the last day or more. Late last night, Google itself posted a response, noting that the figure cited in the Times was “*many* times too high.”

The problem with the Times report is that Wissner-Gross, who got his doctorate in physics from Harvard and has submitted a paper on how CO2Stats quantifies the environmental impact of Web server usage to a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, says he never studied Google specifically and hasn’t concluded anything about the costs of a Google search.

The main business at CO2Stats, which Wissner-Gross co-founded in 2007 with Yale art history student Tim Sullivan, is to track the carbon emissions generated through a website’s usage and then purchase “audited renewable energy from wind and solar farms to neutralize its carbon footprint,” according to the company website. (Editor’s note: the preceding paragraph has been corrected to more accurately describe CO2Stats’ business model. It originally said the company buys carbon offsets, which can be more ephemeral than actually buying power.)

I reached him this afternoon in San Francisco, where he had just done a TV interview disavowing making the Google claims. “We don’t have any statistics on Google,” Wissner-Gross says, [[referring to his own research]—phrase added for clarity on Jan. 14]. As for Google’s actual carbon footprint, “your guess is as good as mine.” In fact, Google’s post on its own environmental footprint “sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” he added.

**Correction and clarification, Jan. 14: Yesterday, and in follow-ups today, we heard from Jonathan Leake, one of the writers of the Times article. He said estimates of the environmental impact of Google queries that were used in his article were provided by Wissner-Gross, and that the statistics contained in a sidebar identified as being written by Wissner-Gross, found here, also were provided by the CO2Stats co-founder. Upon further query, Wissner-Gross acknowledged in an e-mail that he did offer Leake “publicly available statistics regarding others’ research into the Google query footprint.” Consequently, we have removed a sentence in the above paragraph that had quoted Wissner-Gross as saying the reference to Google statistics in the Times was “just pulled out of thin air,” as well as a sentence quoting him as saying the Times was “pretty confused” about what he was saying. We regret any confusion created by our original report.

Wissner-Gross added, however, that “in no way does a statement about publicly available information provide a claim that such calculation is my own, nor does such a statement consitute an endorsement of it.” And he says that he did not sign off on language in the sidebar that stated “we have calculated that each Google search generates an estimated 5-10 g of CO2…” For his part, Leake said in an e-mail this afternoon that Wissner-Gross’ article “underwent some editing during which the phrase “we have calculated” was added.” However, he said, “This was in accordance with what Wissner-Gross had said in the earlier phone interview.” And he stressed that the numbers provided by Wissner-Gross in his draft, which Leake sent to us as corroboration, “were not changed in any way.”]

“For some reason, they [The Times] got all excited about this paper. But in fact the paper … Next Page »

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Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • ET

    This might be a problem if one was concerned about Global Warming, but since the latest craze theory is the Ice Age Cometh then Googling harder and faster will be good for the environment – rather like heating your home for free :-)

    see ya
    ET – Just Thinking