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Science needs to reduce its carbon footprint


What is science worth? For many researchers, the answer is “priceless.” It is not just that science has laid the foundation for modern life through sanitation, energy, electricity and telecommunications, or that technology gives us useful things. The fact is that science deepens our understanding of the world around us in a way that goes beyond material comforts. The poet William Blake may not have had science in mind when he described seeing “The world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower,” but he might have. To me, the deepest value of science is the way it can make us feel connected to the scale of the universe, the power of natural forces.

Still, science can be expensive, and some researchers have recently raised difficult questions about one particular cost: its carbon footprint. Large-scale scientific research uses a lot of carbon energy and emits very large amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to our current climate crisis. So even as scientists help us understand the world, they also do some damage to it.

U a recent case study computer science, Steven Gonzalez Montserrat, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that the environmental costs of this area of ​​research, particularly in computer cloud storage and data centers, are huge and growing. He is a cloud claims, is “carbon intensive”: a single data center can use as much electricity as 50,000 homes. The entire cloud has a larger carbon footprint than the entire airline.

And the carbon problem in research is hardly limited to computer science.

Large astronomical observatories and space telescopes are large emitters. One study, published earlier this year in the journal Astronomy of naturefound that during their lifetime the world’s leading astronomical observatories will produce about 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). At a press conference announcing their results, the authors said that if the world is to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, astronomers will have to reduce the carbon footprint of its research facilities by up to 20 times. This could mean building fewer large observatories. When these researchers analyzed their own object, Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, they found an average greenhouse gas emissions per person amounted to 28 metric tons of CO2e yearcompared to 4.24 metric tons per person for the average French citizen.

Other scientists focused on art carbon footprint of research conferences. One of the most important climate science gatherings is the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), usually held in San Francisco. Climate modeler Milan Klöver and his colleagues is calculated the travel-related carbon footprint of the 2019 AGU meeting was 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide—roughly three metric tons per scientist. Production per person was almost equal to the annual output of the average person living in Mexico. Clover offered ideas for reducing the footprint: moving the meeting to a central U.S. city to reduce travel, holding the conference once every two years and encouraging virtual participation. Collectively, these changes can reduce the travel footprint by more than 90 percent. AGU said it plans to switch locations and use a hybrid meeting format in the future.

But as an analysis of astronomy and computer science shows, it is research, not just travel, that increases the scientific carbon footprint. Emma Strubelcomputer scientist from Carnegie Mellon University, and her colleagues came to the conclusion – in a research which has yet to be peer-reviewed – that from a carbon budget perspective, the extraordinary amount of energy spent on neural network training “would be better spent heating the family home”. Similar complaints were expressed about bioinformatics, language modeling and physics.

This is a harsh reality. But with time running out to prevent climate catastrophe, scientists will need to find a way to do more of their work with far less of our energy.

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