Performing two Google searches has the same environmental impact as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea, according to recent research.

It is estimated that the world’s leading search engine receives around 200 million search requests per day, with a single search generating 7g of carbon dioxide. Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist who is conducting the research, condemned this stating: “Google operates huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power – a Google search has a definite environmental impact.”

The cause of the problem lies in Google’s search process, which sends search requests to multiple servers rather than just one. Although this allows for faster results it also has the effect of raising energy consumption due to servers which compete with each other around the globe. Understandably, in an era marked by environmental concern, Google has been discreet about releasing consumption figures and has even refused to expose the locations of its data centres. Notwithstanding, Google declares itself as being on the frontline of green computing, stating: “We are among the most efficient of all internet search providers.”

Despite the emissions caused by Google, it is but a fraction of emissions caused by computing; simply running a personal computer for one hour emits between four to eight times more carbon dioxide.

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  • Alex Wissner-Gross, the physicist quoted, later revised his surprisingly high estimate, accepting Google’s calculation of 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ. This is about the same energy expended by a car travelling 1 metre, or used by your body in 10 seconds. In terms of CO2 equivalence it is 0.2 grams of CO2 – one 35th of figure Alex Wissner-Gross first calculated.

    As for the comment that Google ‘has even refused to expose the locations of its data centres” – it is not unusual to avoid revealing the sites of data centres, as they are both valuable and vulnerable.

    Some of the newspapers that rushed out the original unlikely story did publish retractions – but not with the same prominence.