Why I Canceled My CO2stats Account

The intertubes have been full of debate about this article from The Times.  The gist of the story is that is that the authors "reveal" that the internet uses electricity.  Specifically they call out Google for emitting 7 grams of carbon dioxide (quoting CO2stats founder Alex Wissner-Gross) per search and thereby infer Google is an environmental hypocrite.  After I read this I canceled my CO2stats account.

Now I've been a subscriber of CO2stats for a while (many of you may have noticed the little green badge on the site that is no more).  It's a feel-good service where publishers can buy offsets for the carbon dioxide emitted by the use of their website.  CO2stats uses a proprietary algorithm to figure out how much carbon is emitted, but essentially they look at traffic statistics to your site and infer from where the visit originates, where your servers are and what kind of computer the visitor is using how much energy is consumed.  Presumably they make this based on the energy mix of the location of the origination and termination.  Once this energy consumption is calculated, CO2stats sells offsets so that the site can claim they are carbon neutral and they make money in the arbitrage; essentially buying carbon offsets at $5 per ton and selling them at $200 or so.

So here is my beef (and why I canceled):

  1. The 7 grams statistics is misleading.  Presumably it is calculated to include the emissions from the computer of the person searching, as well as the network between them and Google as well as Google's infrastructure.  90+ percent of that energy is not attributable to Google, which is why they responded with a number more like 0.2 grams.  It's the equivalent of issuing a press release saying that "a pen bought at Wal-mart emits 1 kilogram of carbon" by including the emissions of the car the customer used to get to the store.  It's one thing to volunteer to pay to offset the emissions of your customer, but another thing totally to be "greenmailed" into it.
  2. Conflict of interest.  The Harvard physicist quoted in The Times article is none other than Alex Wissner-Gross, the founder of CO2stats who just happens to sell website carbon offsets.  The article authors mention this in passing, but not the conflict of interest.  That's shoddy reporting in my view.  Perhaps it was accidental on the part of Alex, but he seems to be exploiting his academic credentials for business gain which I suppose is his right to do but I don't like it.
  3. No cost/benefit analysis.  Sure the internet uses electricity (which produces emissions) but consider the alternative.  What about the upside?  How many trips were avoided, how many packages not mailed and how many phone calls eliminated because of the internet?  Don't you have to at least consider that in an expose on the environmenal hazards of searching the web?

Anyway, I found the whole story annoying and in protest cancelled my account.  Maybe it's an over reaction.  Look at the upside…I just saved $10 per month! 😉