Science needs to reduce its carbon footprint

How much is the science worth? For many researchers, the answer is “priceless”. It’s not just that science has provided the foundation for modern life through sanitation, energy, electricity and telecommunications, or that technology provides us with useful things. It is that science deepens our understanding of the world around us in a way that transcends material benefits. Poet William Blake may not have thought about science when he described seeing “a world in a grain of sand / and a paradise in a wild flower”, but he might have been. For me, the deepest value of science is how it can make us feel connected to the scale of the universe, to the power of natural forces.

That said, science can be expensive, and recently some researchers have raised challenging questions about one particular cost: its carbon footprint. Large-scale scientific research uses a lot of carbon-based energy and emits a very large amount of greenhouse gases, contributing to our current climate crisis. So while scientists are helping us understand the world, they are also harming it.

In a recent computer science case study, Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that the environmental costs of this field of research, especially cloud storage and data centers, are huge and rising. The cloud, he argues, is a “carbon eater”: a single data center can use the same amount of electricity as 50,000 homes. The entire cloud has a larger carbon footprint than the entire airline industry.

And the carbon problem in research is not limited to information technology.

Large astronomical observatories and space telescopes are large emitters. A study, published earlier this year in the journal Astronomy of naturefound that the world’s leading astronomical observatories will produce around 20 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). In a press conference announcing their findings, the authors said that if the world is to meet the challenge of zeroing net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, astronomers will need to reduce the carbon footprint of their research facilities. up to a factor of 20. This could mean building fewer large observatories. When these researchers analyzed their facility, the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, they found that the average greenhouse gas emissions per person were 28 tons of CO.2e per year, compared to 4.24 tons per capita for the average French citizen.

Other scientists have focused on the carbon footprint of research conferences. One of the most important meetings in climate science is the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which is usually held in San Francisco. Climate modeler Milan Klöwer and his colleagues calculated the travel carbon footprint of the 2019 AGU meeting at 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide, about three tons per scientist present. That production per capita was almost as much as the annual production of an average person living in Mexico. Klöwer offered ideas to reduce the footprint: move the meeting to a city in the center of the United States to reduce travel, hold the conference every two years, and encourage virtual participation. Taken together, these changes could reduce the travel footprint by more than 90%. The AGU said it plans to rotate venues in the future and use a hybrid meeting format.

But as astronomy and computer science analyzes show, it is research, not just travel, that increases the scientific carbon footprint. Emma Strubell, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, and her colleagues concluded, in a study that has not yet been peer-reviewed, that from a carbon balance perspective, the extreme amount of energy expended to train a network neural “could be better allocated to heat a family home.” Similar complaints have been raised about bioinformatics, language modeling and physics.

This is a difficult reality to face. But when time runs out to prevent a climate calamity, scientists will have to find a way to do more of their work with far less energy.

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