V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Websurfing costs

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers February, 2009.

As I sit at my desk writing this column, I'm suddenly keenly aware of the quiet hum coming from the back of my computer.

It's a noise few of us computer-hostages notice until we turn off our machines.

But propelling this hum is our collective web-surfing billions of times over-- an activity that according to a Harvard physicist contributes to a global carbon footprint that's greater than the whole of the aviation industry.

In an article for the Times UK, Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross kicked off an online storm when he wrote about the environmental impact of our cyber-cruising.

"For a typical website experience, the dominant contribution to its footprint comes from the electricity consumed by its visitors' computers, followed by the network infrastructure needed to transmit the website, with the servers and data centres providing the website as the smallest contributor," Wissner-Gross wrote last month.

Much of that electricity, he continues, is generated by fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.

According to his calculations, browsing a basic website generates 20 mg of CO2 for every second of viewing. More complex, graphic-rich sites with animations and video, meanwhile, can consume up to 300 mg of CO2 per second.

Consider, for example, that browsing a site hosted in California while sitting in London, England, requires the firing up of power plants on at least two continents which are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Consider also that the global number of Internet users passed one billion in December, with China overtaking America last year.

All that adds up to 2% of international emissions each year in infotechnology, which exceeded the global aviation industry for the first time in 2007, he said.

When I input Wissner-Gross' name in a Google query, meanwhile, it seems I also spewed 5 to 10 g of CO2: Google's infrastructure replicates the query across multiple servers which compete to provide the fastest answer, Wissner-Gross calculates.

In a companion piece, the Times equated the carbon generation of two Googlesearches to the boiling of a kettle, creating an online buzz that spread virally around the world. A boiling kettle generates 15 g of carbon dioxide.

What ensued was a war of words.

Google was swift to come out with a rebuttal, saying the numbers cited were overinflated. A typical Google search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds, and is also equal to 0.2 g of CO2, wrote the senior vice-president of operations, Urs Holzle on the official Google blog.

That's equal to the amount of energy a body burns in 10 seconds. A typical individual's Google use for an entire year would also produce about the same amount of CO2 as a single load of washing.

Meanwhile, Wissner-Gross distanced himself from the roiling kettle debate saying his research dealt with overall web use, surmising that the Times had an "ax to grind" with Google.

It should also be noted that Wissner-Gross runs the CO2Stats.com, a service that audits and greens a website's energy consumption through the purchase of audited, renewable energy for between $4.95 and $99.95 a month.

At the end of his article, Wissner-Gross encourages consumers to, ahem, "make a difference" and put pressure on webmasters to "clean up their environmental impacts."

Maybe it's because cybersurfing seems like an abstract activity, generating no tangible waste that Googling, reading, playing, viewing and ogling seem harmless.

But Wissner-Gross' study is just another reminder that nearly everything has an environmental impact. The moral of his story, it seems, is everything in moderation, including the viewing of YouTube bloopers and basketball dunks for the sixth time. For my part, no teas were brewed in the making of this article.

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SHARE OF GLOBAL INTERNET AUDIENCE

Worldwide, there are about 1,007,730,000 unique visitors

Mexico 1.2%

Brazil 2.7%

Russia 2.9%

Spain 1.8%

France 3.4%

Canada 2.2%

South Korea 2.7%

U.S. 16.2%

U.K. 3.6%

Netherlands 1.2%

Germany 3.7%

India 3.2%

Italy 2.1%

Japan 2.2%

China 17.8%

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