What does science cost? For many researchers, the answer is “invaluable.” It is not only science that has provided the basis for modern life through sewerage, energy, electricity and telecommunications, or that technology gives us useful things. It is that science deepens our understanding of the world around us in a way that transcends material benefits. The poet William Blake may not have thought of science when he described the vision of “a world in a grain of sand / and a paradise in a wild flower”, but it could be so. For 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.
However, science can be expensive, and recently some researchers have raised challenging questions about one particular price: its carbon footprint. Large-scale research uses a lot of carbon-based energy and emits very large amounts of greenhouse gases, which is contributing to our current climate crisis. So, even while scientists are helping us understand the world, they are also doing it some harm.
In a recent computer science case, Stephen Gonzalez Montserrat, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that the environmental costs of this research, especially in cloud storage and data centers, are huge and rising. The cloud, he said, is a “carnivore”: a data center can use the same amount of electricity as 50,000 homes. The whole cloud has a larger carbon footprint than the entire airline.
And the problem of carbon in research is hardly limited to computer science.
Large astronomical observatories and space telescopes are major emitters. A study published earlier this year in the journal Natural astronomyfound that in their lifetime, the world’s leading astronomical observatories will produce about 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2d). At a press conference announcing the results, the authors said that if the world has to deal with the challenge of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, astronomers will have to reduce the carbon footprint of their research facilities by up to 20 times. This could mean building smaller observatories. When these researchers analyzed their own facility, the Institute for Astrophysical and Planetary Research (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, they found that the average human greenhouse gas emissions were 28 metric tons of CO.2d per year compared to 4.24 metric tons per person for the average French citizen.
Other scientists have focused on the carbon footprint of research conferences. One of the most important gatherings of climate science is the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which is usually held in San Francisco. Climate model Milan Clower and his colleagues estimated the travel-related carbon footprint of the AGU meeting in 2019 at 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide – about three metric tons per scientist present. This production is almost as much as the annual production of the average person living in Mexico. Klöwer suggested ideas to reduce the footprint: moving the meeting to a central American city to shorten the trip, holding a two-year conference and promoting virtual participation. Taken together, these changes could reduce the travel footprint by more than 90 percent. AGU said it plans to change seats in the future and use a hybrid meeting format.
But as analyzes of astronomy and computer science show, research, not just travel, increases the scientific carbon footprint. Emma Strubel, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, and her colleagues concluded – in a study not yet reviewed by partners – that in terms of carbon budget, the tremendous amount of energy spent on neural training could be better to be allocated for heating the family home. ” Similar complaints have been raised about bioinformatics, language modeling and physics.
This is a difficult reality to face. But as time goes on to prevent a climate disaster, scientists will have to find a way to do more of their work with much less of our energy.