Harvard academic refutes Google carbon footprint story

Researcher says his research covering the carbon footprint caused by running Web sites was misquoted

A Harvard researcher said on Tuesday that a British newspaper misquoted his research covering the carbon footprint caused by running Web sites.

The Sunday Times wrote that a search query on Google releases 7 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, about half as much as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea. The figure was attributed to a forthcoming research paper authored by Alex Wissner-Gross, who is a fellow at Harvard's Center for the Environment.

[ For more on the inexact science of carbon neutrality and to keep up on green IT trends, check out InfoWorld's Sustainable IT blog and Green Tech newsletter. ]

Google quickly contested the estimate, writing that its own research put the figure at 0.2 gram of CO2.

Wissner-Gross said his research paper, which The Sunday Times never saw, concerns methodologies for measuring how much carbon is released by Web sites by looking at the carbon released by a network, servers, and client PCs. The paper is still being finalized but contains no data on Google and does not specify a 7-gram figure, Wissner-Gross said.

Wissner-Gross said he did discuss Google with the newspaper in broad generalizations, in that Google uses energy, and that the generation of that energy would cause CO2 to be released.

However, Wissner-Gross said one of The Sunday Times writers seemed eager to confirm the 7-gram figure and link it to Google. The researcher said he did not do so. Wissner-Gross said he saw a draft of the story before publication and suggested some changes, but those edits were not made.

Efforts to reach the writers at The Sunday Times were unsuccessful.

Wissner-Gross said there is a positive angle to the incident, given the wide publicity of the story. "I think that the [mainstream public] has actually woken up and discovered green IT," he said.

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