Some random notes from the "Labos1point5" day (November 6, 2020)
I attended the first day of the Labos1point5 French group about reducing the carbon footprint of research. It was held fully online, and I found it very interesting. Here are some quick notes of initiatives and resources that I heard about via this day. (The Labos1point5 day was entirely held in French, and almost all resources linked here are in French, but the question of climate change isn't specific to France, so I'm writing this list in English.)
CO2 impact of computation
- A French estimate of the carbon footprint of computation is available here: here. (The result is about 5 grams of CO2e per hour of core CPU time.)
- The rule of thumb for the environmental impact of computing equipment is that, usually, half of the footprint comes from producing the equipment, and half of it comes from use (electricity consumption).
- In terms of computing time, a useful rule of thumb is that larger datacenters are usually more efficient that smaller ones, thanks to economies of scale. This is an argument for mutualizing (e.g., avoid smaller local data centers), though there are of course other issues (confidentiality...). Here are details and pictures about a French datacenter with passive cooling; there are other French companies active on the green datacenter front, e.g., Webaxys.
- It is now compulsory for sufficiently large companies and public bodies in France to do a regular carbon accounting report to estimate their GHG emissions. For this reason, many people are now looking into measuring GHG emissions, which is a good thing, and investigating how to classify them according to complex accounting rules, which is less interesting but probably unavoidable. This carbon accouting is often delegated to specialized companies. These GHG emission reports are often publicly downloadable (here). Here are the legal details of the requirements.
- The ADEME provides very extensive data to estimate GHG emissions for various activities, including transportation. The dataset is here. The Shift project also has such a dataset for computing: the REN.
- A nice graphic of the carbon footprint of French citizens, here. This is about 12 tons of CO2e per person, to be compared to the 2 tons per year that would be sustainable.
- The environmental impact of computing is studied by the CNRS group Ecoinfo in France. In particular, they provide a tool to estimate the CO2 footprint of computing equipment.
CO2 accounting and reduction in labs
- The labos1point5 group is proposing an online tool for French research labs to measure their carbon footprint. This tool is called GES 1point5, there is a video presentation here.
- Another "regulatory" idea is to integrate criteria about greenhouse gas emissions when doing calls for bids when buying equipment, and ask suppliers for an estimate of the carbon footprint of what they provide. This can be a way to compare suppliers, and encourage them to take this criterion in consideration.
- Many French research institutes are starting to investigate the carbon footprint of the professional travel of scientists. To do this, it is necessary to track which travel is taking place. In some places, this goes together with the need to modernize the way professional travel is ordered (i.e., having a Web interface rather than paper forms). This kind of modernization is a good way to start GHG accounting.
Efforts in reducing CO2 emissions in labs, and political questions
- The Parisian ocean research institute LOCEAN now performs accounting of their GHG footprint (including professional travel and sea travel). They voted (details here and here) to reduce their GHG footprint, in particular putting a cap to limit the emissions of the flights of each faculty (from 10 tons CO2e in 2021 to 2.5 tons CO2e in 2026). This vote was the result of a long process of discussions with all affected faculty to convince them. For this, you have to be ready to accept counterarguments, give time for people to digest the issue and change their minds, and argue against the same common objections coming again and again from different people.
- A common argument against limiting the carbon footprint of research is that research is a "useful" activity, e.g., the carbon footprint of flights for scientific conferences is better used than the same footprint for mass tourism. A good retort to this argument, however, is that scientists are (or should be) better informed than the general public about the issue of climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions. Hence, the people who are informed about the issue have a duty to lead by example, so as to convince more people to act.
- There have been scientific studies of the necessity of flying for academic success (in terms of numbers of citations), see Wynes et al., Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success (link), or Chalvatzis and Ormosi, The carbon impact of flying to economics conferences: is flying more associated with more citations? (link, does not seem available in open access).
- To modernize the practices of research to reduce its footprint, we should look beyond our immediate research area, to see what different fields are doing. Indeed, even though some fields have specific activities with a high footprint (e.g., experiments), some issues (e.g., flights) are common in multiple fields. A good source of inspiration is to look at what is done by researchers in climate science, which are of course better informed about the need to act. That said, it is disputed if they are really acting as much as they should, see, e.g., this study. There is also a paper spelling out the contradiction where sustainable transport researchers still non-sustainably fly to scientific conferences.
- Reducing the carbon footprint of academia is connected to many other things that should be fixed in academia. In particular, a common theme discussed during the Labos1point 5 day was to do less research (but do it better). Indeed, the right way to emit less carbon might be cut the large proportion of travel, projects, papers, etc., that are of very little use and are only done to optimize the wrong indicators.
Other French initiatives
- There are many French public bodies about climate that I didn't know about, e.g., the high council for climate.
- In research, there is also the CIRSES association, which is trying to move higher education and research in the right direction.
- The French dietary recommendations now integrate some information about the environmental impact of food choices.
- I was also interested by the existence of a large-scale initiative to encourage vegetarian meals at the CROUS network of student canteens in Bourgogne Franche-Comté, details here CROUS.
- The phenomenon of knowing about the climate crisis yet not doing anything about it has a name: the knowledge-action gap.
- Interesting-looking seminars about ecology and research in Île-de-France : Ecopolien and Faire de la recherche dans un monde fini
- An interesting idea: "Workdays for future", the idea of dedicating one day per week to work towards environmental issues.