Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/12/google_kettle_green_it_cobblers/

Forget Google rationing: Only lighting farts can save the planet

Green-IT maven ignores the true enemy within

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 12th January 2009 13:42 GMT

Analysis Assertions by a Harvard University environmentalist and green-website promoter that two Google searches cause carbon emissions equivalent to boiling a kettle appear to be based on questionable numbers. Building on the new research, the Reg can also exclusively reveal that three days of normal human farts cause the same amount of damage to the planet as a Google search. Google, however, say that a use of their search engine is only equivalent to farting once.

Alex Wissner-Gross, Environmental Fellow at Harvard University and CTO of co2stats.com ("makes your website carbon neutral") has made headlines round the world this weekend with his "two Googles = one kettle boil" calculation.

Wissner-Gross reckons a normal kettle boil results in 15 grams of CO2 emissions. Does that stand up?

Well, most people use a figure of 500 gCO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity or thereabouts. (The UK wind industry recently agreed to come down to 460 after a row over misleading advertising, acknowledging that electricity is greener than its used to be, but we'll go with the nice round number.) Fifteen grams of CO2 is thus equivalent to 0.03 kilowatt-hours, enough to run a 2kw kettle for 54 seconds. That's a pretty fast boil - it would seem that Wissner-Gross' kettle isn't very full, or (shock) that he's massaging his figures as hard as he can to get a nice headline-grabbing number. Remember, Wissner-Gross' company is dependent on the idea that IT is a big environmental burden - he needs kettle energy consumption to be small here.

Actually, reliable old Which? reckon that boiling a kettle takes 0.103 to 0.12 kilowatt-hours. The right figure for a kettle boil, then, is between 50 and 60g of CO2. Let's be kind to Wissner-Gross and say 50.

The Harvard prof says that a Google search, meanwhile, uses energy equivalent to 7g of CO2 emissions. His research isn't yet published, so we'll just have to take that on trust - though Google dispute it vigorously.

So actually it isn't two Googles = one kettle boil, even by Wissner-Gross' own figures. It's at least seven, more likely eight+ Googles before you've caused the same carbon emissions as you would boiling a kettle.

Crikey, though - that's a lot of greenhouse gas, isn't it? Maybe we shouldn't use computers and IT so much. Or anyway, if we do, we should give Wissner-Gross some guilt money to green up our websites using his co2stats.com magic.

Or, more usefully, we could simply take to lighting our farts.

No, really. Farting and failing to burn off the resulting methane is incredibly environmentally irresponsible. The average person emits anywhere from half a litre to three litres of evil-smelling gas daily. Some of this is CO2, but we shouldn't blame ourselves there - the food we eat absorbs atmospheric carbon as it grows, we are effectively biofuelled and we can ignore that.

But, thanks to our intestinal bacteria, many of us also emit carbon in the form of methane, which is a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 - 25 times as bad for the planet, in fact. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "up to ten per cent" of human intestinal gas is methane. Assuming five per cent, and a middle-of the-road 2l of daily bottomnal emissions, we are each putting out a cool (well, warm) 0.07 grams of CH4 every day. That has the same planet-busting effect as emitting about 2g of CO2, and it's not compensated for by our biofuelled food chain.

Yes - every three days of your life your guts are needlessly burdening the Earth with greenhouse gas destruction equivalent to doing a Google search, according to Wissner-Gross' own figures.

It's hard to say just how many Google searches the average person does, but many of us surely manage to keep the number down to where our farting is on a par - in terms of eco-damage - with our Googling. Quite a lot of people worldwide, hard as it is to believe, don't even have computers or internet connections. But we all have bottoms.

But fret not - you can do something about it. If you light your farts and burn them like a good eco-citizen, CH4 turns into far less environmentally damaging CO2 and water vapour. At a stroke, the extra eco burden of the noxious ringpiece emissions - over and above the body's unavoidable CO2 production - has been slashed almost to nothing.

Yes, that's right. Lighting your farts is at least as ecologically responsible as feeling guilty about your IT usage (and possibly paying green-IT priests like Wissner-Gross for their absolution). Rather than signing up with co2stats.com, the truly planet-cuddly move is to encourage your acquaintances to join you with trousers down and get those Zippos snapping.

Meanwhile, Google hotly dispute the Harvard green-web maven's numbers. They say that actually a single Google uses just 0.0003 kWh, equivalent to 0.15 gCO2 - or just one-twelfth of the average person's daily rectal-methane greenhouse burden. Twelve, as it happens, is a very normal daily number of farts: so if you go by the ads'n'search firm's estimates, one Google = one guff in terms of planetary destruction.

In the future, of course, all this might change. Grid electricity might become lower-carbon in nature as wind, solar and nuclear plants supersede fossil-fuelled ones. The vestigial carbon burden of the IT industry - at most a percentage point or two of the overall problem today, by most estimates - might sink back into the obscurity it deserves.

And people like Dr Alex Wissner-Gross might bend their highly-trained brains to somewhat more pressing environmental issues. Rather than ventures like co2stats.com, we might at long last see the advent of automatic in-pant flare stack technology, able to safely and unobtrusively burn off our own personal greenhouse gas emissions - or even sequester them for later use, perhaps in a gas hob for boiling a kettle. ®