Last Updated on May 2, 2023
If you’re anything like me, you can spend hours searching the internet researching a topic you love. But is an internet search bad for the environment, and if so, how?
On average each of us makes 3–4 internet searches every single day, with Google being by far the most commonly used search engine. But if your job requires you to do a lot of research, you could easily surpass this in a day.
Now, this isn’t designed to make you feel guilty or bad about your internet usage. Rather, it’s to shed light on an often unspoken about topic so you can make more informed decisions.
So, what exactly is the carbon footprint of an internet search? Is an internet search bad for the environment or is it more complex than that? Here’s everything you need to know.
Table of Contents
is google searching bad for the environment?
Google receives approximately 40,000 requests per second, or 3.5 billion searches per day. That’s 700kg of emissions every day according to Medium.
Reminder: This is not to say you should never do an internet search again. However, lets unpack what this means.
The internet relies on servers located in data centers across the world, all connected by cables, switches and routers. This requires lots of energy to run and keep cool (machines can easily overheat), and it’s currently not being done solely on renewables.
Much of the energy used to power those data centers comes from fossil fuels, which are carbon intensive and contribute to climate change. A 2015 study found internet use results in as much CO2 emissions as the aviation industry.
On an individual scale an internet search creates miniscule impact. But collectively, it certainly adds up.
As the number of people reliant on the internet grows, so does the energy needed to keep data centers running. By 2025, data centers could consume one fifth of all electricity globally.
But Google does have plans to decarbonize their energy consumption so that by 2030, they’ll operate on carbon-free energy, everywhere, 24/7.
They also have plans to replenish 120% of the water they consume by 2030, and they claim to actively support water security and ecosystems where they operate.
Once they’re running on carbon free energy, they also want to enable 5 gigawatts of new carbon-free energy in key manufacturing regions, along with deploying $5.75 billion in sustainability bonds, the largest issued by any company ever.
The question is, will it be enough? And can Google guarantee to meet these goals?
Google must be held accountable to these claims and be transparent with their progress along the way. We can push them to do this through activism and spreading awareness (like sharing this article!).
is using the internet harmful to the environment?
Yes, the internet is harmful to the environment on a global scale if you consider the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet searches and the data centers to support them. Altogether, these systems and devices account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
But is an internet search bad for the environment? No: one simple internet search shouldn’t be demonized. Nor should collective internet searches (because lets face it, people need to research things).
What the main problem is, isn’t using the internet itself. It’s where we’re drawing power from to do it. So for example, most data centers that power our internet searches are run on fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change.
On top of this, whenever you plug your laptop or gadget into charge up, you’re tapping into the grid, which is likely also powered by fossil fuels (unless you source your power from renewables).
The carbon footprint of the gadgets we use to access the internet (tablets, laptops, phones) is a whole other topic.
Suffice it to say to make our gadgets, a lot of raw materials are needed, which are extracted unsustainably from the earth and turned into the products we use daily in fossil fuel powered factories. This uses a ton of electricity, water and resources.
This said, to say the internet is bad for the environment would not be an altogether accurate statement. Rather, we need to cut carbon emissions from using it out of the equation.
what would cutting carbon emissions online look like? Something like this:
- Data centers for internet searches are powered by renewable energy.
- Gadgets we use to browse the internet are made from recycled materials (not virgin plastics and metals, etc.) and packaged thoughtfully.
- Factories used to build our devices and data centers switch to renewable energy.
- Stop overconsumption of devices and gadgets and make them repairable (aka, not building them for planned obsolescence).
how much co2 does a google search emit?
It’s hard to say exactly how much CO2 one Google search emits, as every source claims a different amount. However, according to Medium, Google searches emit 700kg of emissions every single day.
One single search will not make or break the planet. However, these collective searches truly do add up when a search engine still powers their data centers using fossil fuels.
It’s also worth noting Google is not the only search engine that emits CO2. Other popular search engines include Bing and Yahoo.
Microsoft runs Bing, and Microsoft has committed to being carbon negative by 2030. By 2050, they claim they will remove their historical emissions since their founding in 1975.
Apollo Global Management owns Yahoo. According to their website, Apollo Global Management aims to deploy $50 billion in clean energy and climate investments over the next five years. They also see the opportunity to deploy more than $100 billion by 2030.
However, these are all very vague claims that have nothing to do with powering their data centers specifically. They should make transparent updates about their progress on these claims, but also talk about what they’re doing to decarbonize their data centers.
Ultimately, Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all search engines, must make the switch to renewables to fight climate change. And they have to be transparent about it (otherwise, that’s a big red flag). After all, how else can we hold them accountable?
what is the most environmentally friendly search engine?
The most environmentally friendly search engine is Ecosia. This sustainable search engine is a certified B Corp and uses 80% of the income generated by search ads to plant trees.
So far, more than 20 million users have contributed to a quickly growing 171,131,804+ trees planted.
Trees help sequester carbon from the atmosphere, literally reversing climate change.
Not to mention trees help create healthy soil, which also acts as a carbon sink, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and back where it belongs: In the ground.
Ecosia steers clear of tree-planting monocultures and instead plants 500 different native species to protect biodiversity. They often work with local communities to make this happen.
Best of all, their solar panels produce enough energy to power your searches twice over, meaning more renewables (and less fossil fuels) in the energy grid. So, they are way beyond carbon neutral.
So, is an internet search bad for the environment? You tell me! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.