In yesterday’s email, Crikey covered a story, originating in the UK’s Sunday Times, that was doing the rounds of the international press about the carbon footprint of Google searches. At the time, it seemed like a clear-cut case of churnalism — the article’s source, a Harvard physicist named Alex Wissner-Gross, discussed the large amount of power used to power Google, while the Times linked to his business website — where you can pay him to offset the carbon cost of your website — without comment on the apparent conflict of interest.

The article’s main hook was that: “Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea… a typical search generates about 7g of CO2” — a claim they attributed to Wissner-Gross.

As we noted in a follow-up piece on our environment blog, Rooted, yesterday, cluey Internet folk started to challenge these figures pretty quickly, claiming the CO2 output of individual Google searches was inflated.

Google itself then issued a response, also claiming that the figures were incorrect and rather “one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2”, as well as pointing out their not inconsiderable commitment to green power, including “the most energy efficient data centres in the world“.

But a more unexpected twist to the story came when Alex Wissner-Gross refuted the stats, saying his study cited by the Times never even mentioned Google: “Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site.” In fact, the whole article seems to have been built around his quote that: “A Google search has a definite environmental impact.”

If there’s one thing worse than journalists simply regurgitating figures from a press release, it’s journalists trying to do figures themselves.

The Times are yet to comment on exactly where their figures came from — if anywhere — though it has at least posted Google’s response (without comment) on their tech blog. The Australian, which syndicated the article here, published a letter criticising the piece today, but it’s unlikely the majority of people who read the original article will see Google of Wissner-Gross’s responses, unless the Oz choose to do a follow-up piece.

Still, the fallout for Google seems to have garnered them plenty more positive press, as they and other news outlets sink the boot into the Times, and they seem to be pretty optimistic about the whole thing, with Google Australia telling Crikey: “The wisdom of crowds is prevailing — the local feedback that we’ve received, and online comments on various discussion boards, show that Australians are taking the kettle of tea claim with a hefty grain of salt.”

Peter Fray

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