The Environmental Cost Of Your Internet Searches, Visualized

By Jesus Diaz

The artist Joana Moll visualized how much CO2 every single Google search emits.

It’s not just phones that are killing our planet, but the web itself–the largest CO2 producer on the planet after the United States, China, and India. Google is a main part of the internet, of course, and the artist Joana Moll wanted to find out how much energy the search giant really consumes. Her resulting project, CO2GLE, is an attempt to visualize how much carbon dioxide the company is emitting per second.

CO2GLE makes its calculations using public data from 2015: First, there’s the fact that the transmission of 1 GB of information takes an estimated 13kWh, which is equal to 7,07 kilograms of CO2. Moll says that since Google.com weighs 2 MB and it processes about 47,000 requests every second, the page emits 500 kilograms of CO2 emissions per second. That’s 300 tons of CO2 every minute. That’s more weight than two adult blue whales. Google reported in 2009 that it emits 0.2 grams of CO2 per search, while environmental consultants Carbonfootprint says that figure may be between 1 kg and 10 kg of CO2 per query.

In a statement to Co.Design, a Google spokesperson called Moll’s numbers incorrect: The company commends Moll “for raising awareness to the carbon footprint of the Internet. That said, the calculations she is basing her art project on are inaccurate.” The spokesperson says that “a full month of all Google services creates about the same amount of GHG emissions as driving a car one mile” per user.

Measuring CO2 in grams and tons gets abstract fast. A better way to look at this is to ask a different question: How many trees does it take to offset one second of Google searches? Moll’s second visualization project does just that: Deforest is a web page that shows the CO2 impact in a line of trees that keeps growing and growing to infinity. Sadly, trees are not infinite.

Tech giants like Google and Apple have programs to lower their carbon emissions, but it’s a difficult and complex task. Apple announced that it has moved 100% of its offices, retail stores, and data centers all over the world to 100% renewable power. It hasn’t erased its carbon footprint yet, however, as the manufacturing, distribution, and customer usage of electronics produce plenty of carbon dioxide. Google recently announced that it’s now using 100% renewable power, but, like Apple, it’s far from eliminating carbon emissions completely.

Meanwhile, companies like Instagram–which received a D sustainability rating from one group–also produce CO2 with its operations. Online porn is really bad too, although not as bad as Netflix, which consumed a whopping 140,000 MWhs of power in 2016. Amazon ‘s cloud services are only powered by 50% renewable electricity. (Maybe all those space travel dollars could be better spent on improving Earth?) In 2016, Facebook had the same carbon-dioxide footprint as 77,500 U.S. homes and used just about 25% renewable energy globally. The company claims that it is aiming to use at least 50% renewable energy in 2018. That’s not good enough.