Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross has made a controversial calculation, that two Google searches puts as much carbon dioxide into the air as boiling a kettle of water for a cup of tea.
This estimated carbon output of the search engine giant, reported by The Times of London, occurs because, of course, computers use electricity that is ultimately generated mostly by the burning of fossil fuels. Google has data centers around the world, and each time you search for something using Google, your request activates at least one and likely multiple data centers.
Wissner-Gross figures each search is responsible for 7 grams of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
Google has responded, calling the number "many times too high." It says each search generates about 0.2 grams of CO2.
Numbers aside, an overall point can be gleaned: The digital era is not without its carbon footprint, one we all contribute to whenever our computer is on and additionally when we use the Web.
The global information technology industry generates about as much carbon dioxide as the world's airlines, or around 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to a report by industry analyst Gartner.
Jason Kincaid, writing for TechCrunch.com, points out that Google searches might be good for the environment if they replace trips to the library or help people find and purchase carbon credits online. Same holds for finding and buying goods online vs. driving to the mall, one might add.
Meanwhile, Google is part of a new group called Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a coalition aiming to halve the power consumption of computer by next year, points out Steven Musil at Cnet. One simple measure: getting companies like Google to turn off computers when not in use. If the goal is reached, the coalition says it'll be equal to taking 11 million cars off the road. They should be wished luck. As with cars, we humans love our computers.
Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.