“Let Us Not Put All Our Eggs in One Basket”
Communications of the ACM, September 2022, Vol. 65 No. 9, Pages 35-37
By Florence Maraninchi
“But what about the overall environmental impacts of this growing infrastructure and the huge number of short-lived devices connected to it, or the indirect impacts on other sectors?”
Our colleagues at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCa) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) have been telling us for years the situation is serious. Last year saw both the publication of the sixth IPPC report, and dramatic illustrations of the impacts of climate change. Researchers and teachers in all disciplines face the question: What can you do in your professional life? If you search the Internet for occurrences of “carbon-neutral university,” you will find a long list of declarations by universities worldwide, claiming they will be carbon neutral by 2030 or 2040. I will not discuss here whether carbon-neutrality objectives are feasible or even make sense at all (see Dyke). I take this series of declarations as a symptom that the academic world is hopefully starting to take scientific results seriously, at least concerning the impact of our work organizations.
In computer science, several personalities have started questioning our peculiar organization that gives an important role to conferences, advocating for a massive change in how research is made and disseminated. Funders also have a significant impact. As far as I am concerned, I stopped airline travel completely, and that is the least I can do, having done quite a lot in the past 30 years. But when I ask myself “what should I do?”, when my students ask “are we part of the solution, or part of the problem?”, I also look at my research and teaching topics, and I feel compelled to question the contributions of these topics to the development and impacts of the digital world as a whole. It is tempting to look at the positive impacts only. The public discourses tend to present the “digital transition” as a necessary and non-questionable solution to the needed “ecological transition.” Our research community has the responsibility to consider several hypotheses, including one in which the digital world is part of the problem.
Evaluating the total environmental impacts of the digital world is a complex task. According to the meta study,4 the greenhouse gases emissions of the digital world account for 1.8% to 3.9% of total emissions and are likely to increase. Arguably, compensating those impacts by corresponding cuts in the emissions of other—non-digital—sectors, would require such profound and quick transformations that it might not be feasible.
The moral of the story, put in a provocative form, could be: If there is a single example in the history of computing, where a particular optimization has not been accompanied by massive direct and indirect rebound effects, then we should study it extensively, from various points of view: technological, economical, sociological, and so forth, in order to try and reproduce it. If there is no such example, then we should stop believing that optimizations always help reducing environmental impacts.
About the Author:
Florence Maraninchi is a professor of computer science at University Grenoble Alpes, Grenoble, France.