Our House Is On Fire: The Climate Emergency and Computing’s Responsibility

hand holds a globe on a fork over a fire, illustration - Credit: Master1305

Our House Is On Fire: The Climate Emergency and Computing’s Responsibility
Communications of the ACM, June 2022, Vol. 65 No. 6, Pages 38-40
By Bran Knowles, Kelly Widdicks, Gordon Blair, Mike Berners-Lee, Adrian Friday

“For too long, digital technology has been able to expand without consideration of its consequences.”


We are writing this as the world’s leaders gather at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). In today’s news, Boris Johnson is “upbeat,” reporting that if this were a football match, the world is down only 5-2 or 5-3, as opposed to 5-1 only a few days earlier. As China’s leaders (conspicuously absent) haggle over whether the target should be 2 degrees Celsius warming instead of 1.5 degrees, and nations engage in a pledge drive to reach an unfathomable 28 gigatons emissions reductions by 2030, it is easy to lose sight of what is really at stake here. We are talking about the risk of catastrophic climate change and whether we [are] going to have a planet habitable for human life.


What is computing’s pledge? Beyond being keen to innovate digital ‘solutions,’ are we going to address our contribution to the climate emergency? ACM recently released its first Tech-Brief, which was designed to communicate to an audience of policymakers some of the key headlines regarding the climate impacts of computing. The brief was in part a response to proposed climate strategies that entail investment in digitalization based on unproven climate gains without acknowledgment of the carbon costs of such endeavors. The overall message of the piece is that computing is by no means immaterial, and given that computing’s emissions are rising, we cannot assume that continuing to do what we have been doing is going to produce a sudden reduction in computing’s footprint.


This Viewpoint draws in part from a much longer report that elaborates at length the kinds of details that matter in this space. Estimates of computing’s current and future carbon footprint vary, and there is (sometimes heated) disagreement about which figure to accept as ‘fact.’ For example, the percentage of global energy use by datacenters ranges from approximately 1%–3%. But these estimates are exactly that: estimates. Anyone claiming to know precisely the carbon footprint of something as vast and as multiplex as the world’s datacenters, or networks, or devices should be met with skepticism. There is simply too much interpretative license involved in setting the boundaries of the analysis, and too little formal and transparent accounting. We can quibble whether computing’s global share of carbon emissions is closer to 1.8% or 2.8%—or possibly even higher (around 3.9%) if accounting for the full supply chain and complete life cycle of the technologies—but in doing so we are avoiding reckoning with the hard truths about computing’s responsibility.


We will most likely never do better than a best guess at computing’s carbon footprint, but given uncertainties it would be safer and more responsible to act on the assumption that higher estimates could be closer to the truth—especially since the pace of warming has exceeded our expectations at every point. But in big-picture terms, the difference between 1.8% and 3.9% does not fundamentally change our mission: computing’s emissions must be reduced urgently and drastically. How are we going to achieve this?


Through Efficiency? … Through Renewables? … Through Offsets? … No Targets, No Accounting, No Plan … The End of Digital Exceptionalism

Read the Full Article »

About the Authors:

Bran Knowles is a senior lecturer in the Data Science Institute at Lancaster University, Lancaster, U.K.

Kelly Widdicks is a lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University, Lancaster, U.K.

Gordon Blair is the head of Environmental Digital Strategy at the U.K. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster, U.K.

Mike Berners-Lee is the founder and director of Small World Consulting and a professor in the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, Lancaster, U.K.

Adrian Friday is a professor in the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University, Lancaster, U.K.

See also: