Leakegate: Yes, Leake was responsible for that bogus story about the carbon footprint of Google

Oh look! Another Jonathan Leake story

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, according to new research.

While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2 Boiling a kettle generates about 15g. "Google operates huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power," said Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon. "A Google search has a definite environmental impact."

Google responds:

Recently, though, others have used much higher estimates, claiming that a typical search uses "half the energy as boiling a kettle of water" and produces 7 grams of CO2. We thought it would be helpful to explain why this number is many times too high. Google is fast -- a typical search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds. ... In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2.

And TechNewsWorld

One problem: the study's author, Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, says he never mentions Google in the study. "For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google," Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld. "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."

And the example involving tea kettles? "They did that. I have no idea where they got those statistics," Wissner-Gross said.

There was a "clarification" added to Leake's story:

A report about online energy consumption (Google and you'll damage the planet, Jan 11) said that "performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle" or about 7g of CO2 per search. We are happy to make clear that this does not refer to a one-hit Google search taking less than a second, which Google says produces about 0.2g of CO2, a figure we accept. In the article, we were referring to a Google search that may involve several attempts to find the object being sought and that may last for several minutes.

So by a "Google search", Leake meant 35 Google searches. Simply really. I don't why Google quibbled with that.


More like this

In 2007, the smash-hit game BioShock told the story of Rapture, a city built on the Atlantic seabed dedicated to the pursuit of the free market. Now academic Alexander Wissner-Gross has revealed how the race for light-speed trading could fuel the development of something remarkably similar.…
Yesterday, the Daily Kos and ThinkProgress reported on some spectacularly inane things that Texas Representative "Smokey Joe" Barton said about carbon dioxide. Now, Barton getting something wrong that involves science or the environment is, of course, nothing new. He is, after all, the man who…
The latest Wired features a list of contrarian environmental facts (organically raised cattle emit more methane gas than conventionally raised cattle, nuclear power is great, the Prius battery takes a lot of energy to make, etc.) but I was most surprised by this factoid: Cooling a home in Arizona…
I had not thought that water was a poorly understood substance. Here are two interesting water articles that show that there is still more to learn. Who knew. First, if you put water in a high DC current it can form a bridge between two beakers: When exposed to a high-voltage electric field,…

Wow. Leakegate is definitely far-reaching. Over here (in Germany) the one Google search boils a tea kettle meme is gospel - I confess that I swallowed that as well. Thanks for the clarification.

To paraphrase, if they don't distort, exaggerate or plain make things up, nobody will listen?

What exactly do the would-be serious press see their job as being about, currently?

This whole statistic seems sketchy. It's not like the server farm fires up every time someone does a search; the real question is, what's the marginal cost of doing a search (or browsing the web)?

Alex Wissner-Gross says:

...we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site.

If Google says:

...a typical search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds... one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2.

then it appears that they're overestimating by a factor of 50.

0.2 grams = 200 milligrams, which is ten times greater than Wissner-Gross' estimate, and Wissner-Gross' estimate is per second, where Google's was per 0.2 second.

Does anyone understand the reasons for the discrepancy?

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Un frikkin believable! That is all I can say about his 'clarification'.

So how much CO2 has Leake generated by quote mining to misrepresent scientists and science?

Also, he issued a 'clarification' of sorts for Google, so why not set the record straight for each and every time they have misrepresented scientists and/or the science? Is it b/c Google can afford powerful lawyers...? Maybe Google could kindly provide some lawyers to represent scientists with grievances against the rogue media. Are you listening Google? Pretty please :)

Keep piling on the pressure Tim, the rogue, pseudo journalists are cracking....

By MapleLeaf (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

@3 V. infernalis has it right. Assume that the internet already exists, the routers and servers are running ... the incremental cost of searching for information on the web would be far less than driving to a library - and of course the web has more information than the library.

Continuing that thought, sending email has less cost than physically transporting mail, etc.

Does anyone know the *motivation* of this claim? I can see why a journalist of Leake's quality would hate Google - everyone in the world can fact check him. But there isn't any overall anti-information-society stance to the climate deniers in general is there?

I remember this when it first broke. It spread rather quickly around here, similar to the "prius has bigger carbon footprint than hummer" distortions.

Here's the part I find funniest - Leake's distortions are ALWAYS pointing away from the science. They do not necessarily point in the same direction. Doesn't he realize that some of his articles are mutually contradictory?

I reasoned, by the completely unmathematical 'law of averages', that Leake might be expected to get one story in a while almost perfect.

So, by way of a little balance in this demonising of Leake (and he certainly is deserving of a fair bit of opprobrium for recent events, some of which I've dished out too), there is at least one Leake article that was received favourably by his interviewee, Dr Wheeler at Sunderland Uni (though there are one or two minor points I might quibble with).

Now I'm absolutely sure that Tim is aware of this ('The Australian's War on Science' series points to that), but in chastising Leake one musn't lose sight of the fact that others are equally culpable, and some probably more so.

This is brought home by reference to that Leake piece again. About 6 weeks after Leake's "Captain's logs" piece was published, Ben Goldacre wrote Don't let the facts spoil a good story, about how the "perfectly good" Leake story got mangled by other papers in the UK, namely the Sun and the Daily Telegraph, in their anti-AGW stance.

The target of the opprobrium should be wider than an/the individual journalist. That journalist may well be under "editorial guidance" and he will likely be "subbed".

...or perhaps Leake imagined the average server farm was somewhat analogous to the climax of Forbidden Planet.

Consider that the goal of anti-science people is not necessarily to get people to accept a given viewpoint, just to distrust and disbelieve science. (It's why tobacco companies got involved in GW denialism.)

I find the entire concept bogus to begin with. Google searches don't emit any CO2, unless for some reason there's a CO2 cartridge attached to the severs that goes off every time someone does a search.

Coal-fired power plants emit CO2. Google is simply one of their many customers. Google demands electricity, and they have little control over where it comes from. If all electricity came from non-carbon sources, it wouldn't matter as far as Google was concerned, except they'd pay a little more for electricity (as would their competitors).

Tim, are you forwarding all this to Leake's employer?

Is he still employed ?

Actually maybe his employer is not the person to forward it to...perhaps a competitor !

Back in the black and white TV era, there was a program called That Was The Week That Was; one of there jokes had someone saying "Gentlemen, every nine seconds somewhere in the world a woman has a baby. Our task is to find this woman and stop her."

Somewhere in this world, every nine seconds, someone creates a new climate-denial lie.

You may have found the guy.

Can anyone link to the original story explaining "Leakegate", please and thank you.

This is my first post, not sure why that is relevant but oh well.

The question was asked along the lines why would Leake attack google.

If I am not mistaken, the Times is a Murdoch paper, recently there has been a very public slanging match between "Google" and Murdoch and his proxies in regard to the publishing of Newspaper stories on Google's News service, maybe this was a shot fired that went wrong for Leake

Fred@16: Click the word "leakegate" from the Categories list on the left, or at the top of this post. There's a lot to go through.

Post Hoc@17: Leake wrote that article over a year ago. Hadn't heard about the Google/Murdoch fight. I suspect this is more Leake finding something that to him sounded like "another nail in the envirohippie coffin" and writing about it. See also George Will for examples of this phenomenon.

Hank@14: Bringing up That Was The Week That Was now? What is it with the climate blogosphere referencing things connected to Tom Lehrer lately? I mean, just a week ago, we saw Eli pull this off...

It's true that data centres (across all companies) are using a notable portion of overall power consumption in many places (such as California IIRC)...but the CO2/power cost of performing the same functions without using the Internet should be compared.

Google demands electricity, and they have little control over where it comes from.

IIRC Google are beginning to exert some control over where it comes from by investing in various green energy and efficiency initiatives and offsetting the remainder.

They do make that information hard for a savvy journalist to find though - maybe they should consider ensuring it can be found through, oh, I don't know, a popular search engine or something? (Try "google green energy" as a search term.)

Leake is starting to look like Monckton - a good bet that everything he says in public is almost the complete opposite of the truth.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

Bruce & Brian.

Thank you both. I've been reading some of the posts, even without a complete understanding of the situation it's been interesting.

Off to read, maybe I'll have something to contribute in a few hours.

Brian D

My bad

Speaking of shoddy climate reporting, The Examiner (unsurprisingly, and once again) drags it rancid carcass into the centre ring at the Great Denialati Circus.

Forewarned is forearmed, so here is a taste of what you will see there:

As the Climategate scandal continues to broaden and as more information is disclosed pointing to a stunning consortium of fraud, false information, and shoddy science, it is becoming clear that laws have been broken and that many nations around the world have lost billions of dollars as a result.

"Does anyone know the motivation of this claim?"

My guess:

A popular theme among anti-environmentalist types is that the hippies want you to eat tofu and live in caves, and therefore the hippies believe that everything is bad for the environment. So the anti-enviros love to find examples of seemingly innocuous activities that someone says are bad for the environment to prove that if the hippies had their way, we'd all have to live like ascetics.

Or more simply, if you can blame global warming on a forward-thinking company that the hippies like, then it takes attention away from the regressive fossil fuel concerns that are actually causing the problem.

I don't think Leake's shoddy reporting is part of any right-wing agenda. His badgering of interviewees, quote mining, exaggerations and fabrications are all about promoting Jonathan Leake and making his stories more attention grabbing.

By Tim Lambert (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

This would explain why Leake's work is so shoddy; he's so concerned about the amount of CO2 generated in researching his stories that he doesn't bother doing any!

The agenda need not be more complex than making limitations on CO2 releases sound ridiculous. "Anything you do creates CO2 anyway, so stop worrying about it."

BTW, when I was studying physics at the Uni, the most important thing I learned in lab excercises was Lindström's Constant*. Its value is defined as desired result divided by observed result. It seems Leake is using the value 35 this time.

* It probably has other names in other countries...

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

> Tim, are you forwarding all this to Leake's employer?

You really think Rupert Murdoch will be that bothered?

Tim@25: I wholeheartedly agree. Leake represents the worst aspects of UK journalism and the fact that his chosen subject matter should be dealing with matters of fact rather than opinion makes it all the more worse. His position at the supposedly prestigious Sunday Times is built on nothing more than a mountainous dung-heap of hype and misinformation and I applaud your efforts to highlight this.

I'll point out that some people are really bad at using Google or any other search 'engine'.

Maybe many of these Carbon footprint calculators should ask how many searches people do a day.

On a related note. Semiconductor manufacture is a small fraction of the total lifecycle carbon footprint of semiconductors:


I'm curious... Are there any widgets for supposedly calculating one's carbon footprint as one wanders the Interweb?

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Very clever. If the internet has to be shut down for using too much power, only the New World Order elite can use it. This way, all tose lies cannot be disproved anymore. They don't leave anything out.

By Johnny Wezel (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Joaron Lanier goes on like that, too. Capitalism, respecting IP, and weirdest of all, having ONLY ONE COPY OF ANY FILE ON THE WHOLE INTERNETS are not only natural, wise, magic and what Rand intended, but they're "Green." And the collectivism of open source and openness and anything free are, on the contrary, polluting. For instance, since half of the internet bandwidth is bittorrent, that means the open culture movement is anti-environment.

To me, he seems like a capitalist cultist who'll grab any weapon, even ones he doesn't care about, like the environment, probably to charge his liberal collectivist strawmen with hypocrisy. But he does go on about the web power use bashing. Not only is the person above right about the not-firing-up-the-server-farm-for-every-search-for-#@$s-sake - it's a lot more like a refrigerator, either you don't have one or it has an optimum use-pattern - but no one mentions what you'd have done otherwise - phoned, perhaps used a plane, cut down trees.

Just pointing out that radical positions like Lanier's (a person who basically claims to have invented everything to do with opensource culture, by the way) are out there. He advocates a gated community of entirely proprietary files should replace the internet by rigid enforcement of property rights. It's the same libertarian argument that says if all the land, air and water were privately owned, it would be better managed, and people would get better air and better water and better-used land as long as they were willing to work 80-hour weeks under hazardous conditions to buy them, etc. etc.

It's the kind of political porn Stossel and Tierney write, and a certain kind of market fundie gets off on it.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 19 Feb 2010 #permalink

Bernard J asked a while back for an explanation of the discrepancy between Google's estimate of 0.2g carbon emitted per search and Wisnner-Gross' 20 mg (0.002g) per website hit. (And please can we have numbered comments like at Crooked Timber?)

The technology is different. Visit Deltoid or my home page and you use a share of the energy Deltoid's host server is burning to run its hard drives, and the energy of the transmission of the webpage to you as an email. The former is a fixed cost, incurred whether or not asnybody visits the site (Deltoid: thousands, my home page: nobody), so the marginal cost is only the latter.

Type a Google search and you are asking Google to run a clever program, specifically to look up the terms of your query in its vast index of every word and page on the Web. The fixed energy cost includes building the index and keeping it available on an army of servers, orders of magnitude more than Deltoid's host. The marginal energy cost of the lookup is also far greater because the index is so huge.

I don't have the numbers, but in principle the discrepancy makes sense.

By James Wimberley (not verified) on 20 Feb 2010 #permalink

James at 34: Comments here are numbered on the left (yours is number 34, for example) so perhaps whatever you are using the view the pages isn't rendering them correctly. The numbers are occasionally thrown off by comments being held up in moderation, so sometimes they get goofy, but they are there.

The Google question isn't quite as simple as you might think, however, because there are so many variables, and the difference between any other website and a search engine isn't necessarily what you think.

Pages don't get "emailed," but that doesn't really matter: whether you access the data via HTTP, POP/SMTP, RSS, FTP, or any other protocol, the overhead associated with the protocol would be fairly similar.

Any time you access a resource via the Internet, you're asking some server somewhere to run a clever program, or, more accurately, several clever programs: one to serve up static HTML, one to retrieve something from a database, one to log the traffic, and so on. And a good webserver will be caching a great deal of that information in RAM. (I think this is what Marion was getting at above when he mentioned optimal use patterns.)

You're right about Google having larger fixed energy costs because of the creation and maintenance of the index, but that may not matter when you're trying to break down the expense (be it CO2 expense, or $) on the basis of "per use" access.

Think about it this way: suppose I decide to create a website for "The Internet Museum of Fred MacMurray's Socks." So I load Linux and Apache on an old Dell workstation and I plug it in to my network, and I leave it on for a year, waiting for a flood of traffic. Maybe it burns a $100 worth of electricity over the course of that year. If only two people visit the site, does that mean that each of those people used $50 worth of electricity? If, the next year, I change the site to "The Internet Museum of Tina Fey's Lingerie" (World's Sexiest Woman, btw), and the site gets 11,000 visits, what does that mean? Admittedly, there was slightly more energy used, what with disk access devoted to logging and so on; so let's say now I used $110 worth of electricity.

But does it make any sense to say that it costs $50 to look at Fred MacMurray's socks, but it only costs a penny to look at Tina Fey's panties?

It's worthwhile to remind people that there are energy costs associated with browsing the web; but as others have pointed out, there would be costs associated with alternative activities, too.

I'm with Steve Reuland: the whole concept is kinda bogus.


The article said a "typical" search whereas Google is talking about a "single" search. These things could be completely different and both correct!

By Dave Andrews (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink