Owning Computing's Environmental Impact

 
 
 
It is time for the computing community to face up to computing’s growing environmental impact—and take responsibility for it! And further, to undertake research, design, and operations to reduce this growing impact.
 

Communications of the ACM, March 2019, Vol. 62 No. 3, Page 5
Editor's letter: Owning Computing's Environmental Impact
By Andrew A. Chien

For decades, we have carried the conceit that "computing makes everything more efficient," so the impact of computing on the environment is a net positive. But computing's unprecedented success has produced an explosion in its use, quantity, and direct environmental impact. It is time for the computing community to face up to computing's growing environmental impact—and take responsibility for it! And further, to undertake research, design, and operations to reduce this growing impact.

The transition to SSDs and the consolidation of enterprise computing into efficient cloud datacenters has for a decade blunted the impact of growing computing use. But cloud computing's extraordinary scale (200TWh, $200B in 2017) and ICT's projected power growth (to 21% of global power consumption by 2030) drive the rapid growth of the cloud's atmospheric carbon emissions. Computing is the fastest-growing use of electric power in the developed world, and is driving the buildout of power generation and transmission in much of the developing world. If the world is to meet the Paris Accords goals for greenhouse-gas-emissions, computing must reduce its direct emissions.

Equally daunting is the rapid growth of waste from computing electronics, notably consumer products, smartphones, and the plethora of "smart devices" collectively termed the "Internet of Things." In 2016, e-waste reached 44.7 million metric tons per year, comparable to the size of the nine Pyramids at Giza, or 1.23 million 18-wheel trucks full of trash. This is an 8% increase from only two years earlier. Of this massive quantity, only a fraction is collected and recycled, with the largest fraction simply dumped into landfills or incinerated. Any claims that computing is "good" for the environment, must reckon with this waste problem.

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About the Author:

Andrew A. Chien is the William Eckhardt Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chicago, Director of the CERES Center for Unstoppable Computing, and a Senior Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.