Sustainable digitalization

We’re part of nature – and we study nature. Are we aware of the costs on nature of our research activities? Do we know the carbon footprint of our work? Most likely not.

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We’re scientists and researchers – hunting for new knowledge. Some of us in big data, many of us in running experiments. Data needs to be stored – which mostly means electronically and nowadays in the cloud. Do you know whether your cloud provider uses renewable energy?
We’re lecturers and mentors. Teaching has also changed in the last two decades, relying far more on digital solutions, whether it is video lectures, digital learning platforms or just emailing instead of face-to-face conversations with undergraduates and graduates. Remote supervision and online teaching have come for full due to the Corona pandemic. Do you know the carbon footprint of distributing videos to over 100s of students?
We’re science communicators and ambassadors for our research. Presenting our research at conferences and workshops often means travelling. In addition, we may have profiles at google scholar, researchgate, linkedin, academia, tweet about our research, have lab pages on facebook, and may also promote our research on Instagram and tiktok. All this media presence uses electricity, which has to come from somewhere. Ever thought about that?

However, the biggest environmental impact researchers had was traveling by plane to conferences. This year marks a major (green and more sustainable) shift as conferences become virtual. It is the greener alternative. It offers more inclusive meetings as the costs of travel and the time to travel were uneven among scientists and excluded researchers from low-income countries, early career researchers and researchers without big grants. But don’t be too excited, if video conferences and meetings reach 5-10 x more participants than physical meetings, and lectures are uploaded on youtube and alike, the carbon footprint might end up similarly high than for a physical meeting without recording of the lectures.

Major reduction in air travel is a start but we can do more. Our goal should be no additional greenhouse gases from storing and disseminating our research. First to check is whether your universities data center still runs on fossil fuel. The share of digital technologies in global greenhouse gas emissions has increased from 2.5% to 3.7% (Shift projects’ Lean ICT report https://theshiftproject.org/wp...). This is more than the carbon footprint of aviation (2.4% https://www.eesi.org/papers/vi...). The environmental costs will increase if the rapid growth in consuming video continues. Particularly when conferences and workshops become virtual. Renewable energies to run cloud services should become the default.

Page 2 | Royalty-free cloud system photos free download | Pxfuel

free of use but not still left a carbon footprint

Secondly, consider whether recorded lectures can be shown with lower video quality but still high sound quality. Often, seeing the speaker is not adding much (exceptions do exist, e.g. expressive art, teaching non-verbal communication). And why re-inventing the wheel? Can you refer to already published content?

Thirdly, emails build up, and we may delete them but not delete the bin. We attach files, some small some big to emails – it adds up. If you send a 20 Mb attachment to an email list with over 500 recipients, you in fact were sending 10 Gb of data.

The benefits of digitalization for research are huge. Let’s work on minimizing the greenhouse gas emissions. 

Gerit Pfuhl

Professor in cognitive and biological psychology, UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Researching decision-making, both function and mechanism (also phylogeny and ontogeny), using comparative and computational methods. PhD in cognitive Neuroscience from NTNU

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