The Environmental Impact Of Your Pointless Googling

Those cat videos don’t come out of thin air. Each time you use the internet, massive data servers need power, and power causes emissions. While tech companies are trying to be more efficient and use renewable energy, there is still a cost to every search.

Backers of the Net have long pushed its environmental benefits. And it’s true that the Net has allowed us to use less energy by dematerializing many essential activities. For example, downloading an MP3 rather than buying a CD produces a lifecycle CO2 saving of 40% to 80%.

Having said that, the Net’s environmental impact is not bupkis. Recently, campaigners have been sounding the alarm about the cloud-related expansion of data centers around the country, with some well-known companies accused of using less-than-clean energy sources to power them.

This infographic by Wordstream points to both sides of the issue. On the one hand, data centers are much more efficient than they used to be:

If cars had increased in efficiency at the same rate as data centers, we’d have 400,000,000-MPG cars right now. All that extra speed could help us reduce emissions, by making it easier to telecommute instead of driving. But few workplaces have truly embraced this advance:

But, on the other hand, pointless surfing does have consequences. Something has to power those searches.

As Megan Marrs, at WordStream, puts it:

"Every time you procrastinate by Googling pictures of goofy cats or laughing babies, you’re slapping a tree in the face."

Another reason to be productive, anyway. You can see the entire infographic here or check it out below:

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  • David Bellona

    Very compelling post, however, one number jumped out at me at being very wrong: "In 2005, the United States had a total of 10.3 million data centers". I think the designer meant 'servers' instead of 'data centers' as it has been estimated that Google had about 900,000 servers in 2011 (http://bit.ly/pQOXru) and there were just over 500,000 data centers that same year (http://bit.ly/vBb2Ue).

    Also hinted but not mentioned is Jevons paradox, better known as the rebound effect. It explains as technology allows for faster and easier access to a resource, that resource becomes cheaper and used more quickly. The consequence is a low-carbon habit resulting in a high-carbon lifestyle simply because we do it more.