Internet search results could increase carbon emissions

I risultati di ricerca su Internet potrebbero aumentare le emissioni di carbonio

Search engines sell ads, so they have an incentive to encourage more consumption. Credit: Google, CC BY-SA

Most everyone thinks they know how to use Google and they usually get the answer they want. Many will intuitively know that the query “milk is good” leads to different results than “milk is bad”. The same is true for queries for “climate change” vs “climate hoax” or for “valid 2020 US election” vs “stop theft”.

From Research engines are more of a “wish list” than an authoritative source, they can help spread mis- and disinformation which can it be harmful to democracy or company. They are not neutral information brokers.

Instead, search engines return a list of results they think are most relevant to a specific query. The underlying algorithms make a decision about it relevance and visibility for a specific query in a specific location and sometimes for a specific user.

Search engines are a an integral but often invisible part of how people navigate the modern world. In this function, they also shape the understanding of reality and thus can harm the environment. In a recently published documentwe argue that the assumptions search engines make about what we’re looking for could lead people to emit more carbon than they otherwise would have.

The environmental damage of algorithmic care

Take the query “summer clothes” as an example. You’ll get a list of online or nearby stores that sell summer dresses, as well as photos of models showcasing the dresses for sale. This is exactly what we expect.

But other possible interpretations of the query “summer clothes” are possible. Maybe you want to find out what summer clothes were like in a particular historical period. Maybe you want to see which colors in your wardrobe are the best to wear this year. Or maybe you really want to buy summer clothes, but only with certified organic or fair trade fabrics or from a second hand store.

You can also enter the names of two big cities, such as “Berlin Stockholm”. Google will present you with results that mainly concern air travel and not, for example, a comparison of the livability of these cities. Google will highlight various flight options in its built-in flight comparison, while you need to scroll further down to find train tickets.

These results are by no means predefined, but rather the result of algorithmic curation. Even without personalization, search result listings are uniquely created from specific content optimized for specific searches, search engine algorithms, and user queries and location.

You can try it yourself with these and other cities. But keep in mind that the use of quotes, the order of cities, or local vs. English spelling can make a difference, since so many businesses are trying to optimize for specific searches

Any reader familiar with Google search knows those alternative results we’ve outlined require more questions. Such queries should explicitly state that the search is for something other than buying clothes or flights. For example, querying “colors of summer clothes” or “Berlin Stockholm livable”.

In each case, the default options that the algorithms select and curate shape what we consider default. If we aren’t careful and thoughtful about our goals when searching, it will also affect at least some people’s actions. And these actions have very real environmental implications.

Environmental damage as algorithmic damage

We suggest calling these environmental implications “algorithmically incorporated emissions”. By this we mean emissions potentially contained in content that algorithmic information systems, such as search engines or a Facebook or TikTok feed, suggest as a default option.

Our work so far is conceptual although we hope to develop a way to quantify the concept in the future. For now, we can observe it Search Results tend to suggest high-carbon practices.

And we can see that associated companies such as flight comparison services or fast fashion brands can also optimize their websites for better search engine rankings. These companies tend to have larger budgets than their more sustainable alternatives (such as a small organic or repurposed summerwear brand).

In recent years, researchers have highlighted the potential harm that algorithmic decision-making can do to people, for example by reproducing racial or Genre prejudices. This is often called algorithmic damage.

The concept of algorithmically embedded emissions asks us to take even more of the algorithmic damage. It shows that algorithmic decision making has a real impact on both people and the planet.

It’s also an example of how algorithmic the decision-making process has higher-order effects beyond the immediate harm done to individuals. In other words: it matters how algorithms work and shape our actions. As the climate crisis accelerates, we’ve only just begun to ask how algorithms shape the way we think and act towards the environment.

In response to this article, a Google spokesperson said:

On Google Search, our goal is to connect people with timely, relevant, and helpful information to make choosing sustainable an easier choice. We basically design our search ranking systems to surface reliable, high-quality information on topics such as climate change. To complement these efforts, we’ve also developed a number of features to give people a helpful context to make informed decisions about sustainability, including helping people quickly access information about the environmental impact of goods and services they see in results. We work with thousands of partners across industries—from cities and governments to businesses and nonprofits—to advance sustainability and climate progress.

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Citation: Internet Research Findings May Increase Carbon Emissions (2022, Dec 8) Retrieved Dec 8, 2022 from

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