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

1/12/09Follow @bbuderi

(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 is all about the methodology that we’re using,” Wissner-Gross told me. He says that no companies are mentioned in the paper.

What CO2Stats does have, he says, are statistics on the environmental costs of operating websites in general. The sites he studied, Wissner-Gross says, typically operate with only a few servers, “certainly nothing [on] the scale of Google.” In such cases, the majority of the energy “is consumed on the client side, not on the server side,” which makes it relatively easy to calculate total energy consumed. Wissner-Gross says that 20 mg of CO2 is emitted per second of normal website usage. “This is you just reading a content article on a basic website,” he says.

Wissner-Gross says he has already been in touch with Google about the controversy. “We’ve spoken to them today. We’ve told them what’s going on,” he says, adding, “It seems like they have the PR situation under control.”

The silver lining in all this, he says, is that “we’ve been seeing a lot of people signing up for our service” since the Times article appeared. Wissner-Gross says CO2Stats currently has about 5,000 websites worldwide signed up for this service, and had been growing at a rate of about 30 percent per month. He declined to say how many new customers have signed up in the past couple of days.

He seemed even more pleased about the increased awareness of the environmental costs of website usage the controversy has brought. When he first started talking about such matters, it sounded “a little bit silly,” Wissner-Gross admits. “Now for the first time it’s caught the attention and the imagination of the world…The market has woken up and discovered that IT has an environmental footprint.”

He hopes the day will come soon when people take environmental certification for websites “as seriously as they take having a privacy policy.”

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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