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Web of pollution?

Don’t tell Al Gore, but surfing the web may also pose an inconvenient truth when it comes to hastening our environmental ruin.

Don’t tell Al Gore, but surfing the web may also pose an inconvenient truth when it comes to hastening our environmental ruin.

That’s among the findings of a recent study by Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross on the environmental impact of Internet usage — a revelation that has, somewhat ironically, generated significant buzz in some quarters of the web.

In a yet-to-be published study, Wissner-Gross found that roughly 20 milligrams of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere for every second that an average website is viewed. That includes the energy used both on the surfer’s end, including the electricity needed to run individual computers and the networks they connect to, and the energy used to create and host the content itself.

“At an individual surfer scale, the impact is not that large — about 50 per cent larger than a human exhaling,” Wissner-Gross said recently.

“But in aggregate, for websites that get a lot of traffic, it can be substantial and it can be thousands of pounds of CO2 per month.”

Though web surfing is not often thought of as a polluting activity, Wissner-Gross noted that a 2007 study by U.S. firm Gartner Research found the global IT industry generated about the same amount of greenhouse gases as the airline industry, which is about two per cent of total global emissions.

Wissner-Gross says he wasn’t prepared for the swift reaction that his study generated.

That included a sharp response from Google after a British newspaper cited his study’s findings and singled out the search engine giant as a key offender — namely because it directs individual search queries to multiple servers simultaneously in the interest of generating speedier responses.

Ron Dembo, the CEO of Zerofootprint, a Toronto company that runs carbon offset projects, said Internet users need to realize their actions can come with a significant environmental cost, and they should think twice before entering a “frivolous” search query or streaming a goofy YouTube video.

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Google claimed it would take more than 1,000 queries on its search engine to equal the greenhouse gas emissions generated by an average car driving one kilometre.

 
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