What good is science? For many researchers the answer is “no price”. It’s not just that science has laid the foundation for modern life through sanitation and energy and electricity and telecommunications, or that technology provides us with useful things. Science is about deepening our understanding of the world around us in a way that transcends material benefits. The poet William Blake may not have been thinking about science when he described seeing “A world in a grain of sand / And a sky in a wild flower,” but it could have been so. For me, the deepest value of science is the way we feel connected to the scale of the universe, the power of natural forces.
That said, science can be expensive, and some researchers have recently raised difficult questions about a 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 doing some damage.
In a recent case study on computer science, Steven Gonzalez Monserrat, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that the environmental costs of this area of research, especially cloud storage and data centers, are enormous and rising. He says the cloud 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-based telescopes are large emitters. A study published in the journal earlier this year Nature Astronomyfound that the world’s largest astronomical observatories would produce about 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO)2nd). In a press conference announcing their results, the authors said that if the world is to meet the challenge of net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, astronomers will need to reduce the carbon footprint of their research facilities by 20 factors. This may involve building fewer large observatories. When the researchers examined their facilities, the Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Tolosa, France, found that the average greenhouse gas emissions per person were 28 metric tons of CO.2nd per year, compared to the French average of 4.24 metric tons.
Other scientists have focused on the carbon footprint of research conferences. One of the most important meetings of climate science is the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which is usually held in San Francisco. Climate model Milan Klöwer and his colleagues estimated the carbon footprint associated with travel to the 2019 AGU meeting was 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, about three metric tons per scientist in attendance. The production per person was equal to 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 central U.S. to shorten travel, hold a conference every two years, and encourage virtual participation. Taken together, these changes can reduce the travel footprint by more than 90 percent. AGU has said it intends to alternate locations in the future and use a hybrid meeting format.
But analyzes of astronomy and computer science show that 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 that the amount of energy spent on training a neural network could be “better allocated” from a carbon budget point of view that has not yet been reviewed by peers. to heat a family home. ‘ Similar complaints have been raised about bioinformatics, language modeling and physics.
It’s a difficult reality to deal with. But as time goes on to prevent climate catastrophe, scientists will have to find a way to do more of their work with much less of our energy.