Viewpoint: scaling down science won’t save the planet

22 Jan 2024 | Viewpoint

Data centers make a notoriously large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. But a call to slow down research in a bid to reduce their environmental impact makes no sense - sustainability can go hand-in-hand with increased processing power

Kimmo Koski, managing director at the CSC­­ IT Center for Science in Finland

There is a worrying new trend in academia, of scientists saying they want to scale back their research to reduce carbon emissions.

True, the pressure to adhere to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles is increasing in all parts of our societies, and research and science should not be an exception. But instead of this being equated with a need to scale down research infrastructures and data centres, we need to take action to  ensure these facilities are sustainable.

Computation is used in practically all research fields: modern supercomputers process huge amounts of data at speed, accelerating science and enabling us to set completely new research questions and to adopt new, more powerful methods, like artificial intelligence

With the help of scientific computing we can tackle the toughest challenges in world, in fields including climate change, biodiversity loss and drug discovery. At the same time, research-based knowledge needs to be promoted as a basis of all decision making in society.

It is true that advanced computing and data management infrastructures consume a lot of energy - that cannot and must not be denied. But equally, the answer cannot be setting back science or scaling down analysis of an ever-increasing pool of data.  

Instead, we must pay more attention to establishing high sustainability standards for the entire lifecycle of data centres and research infrastructures - from construction to operation, through to decommissioning. There must be ambitious sustainability goals, and operating sustainable research infrastructures should be seen as an integral part of research integrity.  

Greening data centres

What does this mean for data centres and the supercomputers they house? Recommendations made to other energy-intensive industry also apply here, with the obvious one being that they use carbon-free energy sources wherever possible.

But that does not go far enough. It's even more important to focus on the energy efficiency of the data centre itself. In practice, this means that most of the energy should be used to perform actual computation tasks, rather than cooling the system. Data centre operators should also put pressure on suppliers and prioritise ESG features in their procurements.   

The European Commission is currently drawing up sustainability indicators for data centres and has made an excellent suggestion for evaluating the sustainability of the operational phase of a data centre, including a renewable energy factor and an energy re-use factor.

For these indicators to be meaningful, they must address the sustainability of the whole lifecycle of a data centre, from construction, through the operational phase to decommissioning.

I share the concerns of Minna Palmroth, a professor in computational space physics at the University of Helsinki, who writing earlier this month in the Financial Times, advocated against any proposals to restrict science.

But at the same time, I am glad to see ESG principles are being raised to the forefront. Data centre operators should not be seen as a part of the problem, but as a part of the answer to delivering more sustainable infrastructures.

Mean and green

A fascinating exemplar of the fact that more processing power need not equate with more emissions is the LUMI supercomputer, which is one of the most powerful and one of greenest systems in the world. It proves that sustainability and performance can go hand-in-hand.

LUMI, owned by the European EuroHPC Joint Undertaking, which is funded by EU and ten European countries, is installed in CSC's data centre in Kajaani, Finland, in an old paper mill.

This is an optimal location for several reasons. It is a brownfield site with heavy cabling already installed, delivering  apractically limitless supply of carbon free hydro-electric power from a neighbouring power plant. The cooling requirements are relatively modest, with the high northern latitude meaning average temperatures are low almost year round (January -10C, July +16C).

Heat is generated by the data centre, but rather than being discharged into the air, it is channeled to heat homes in Kajaani, city of 36,000 inhabitants.

At CSC, we have been operating supercomputers for decades, and have tried to address the issue of carbon footprint of data centres as part of our strategy. However, there is more to do and we need to set ambitious goals.

It is clear that we need more discussion on the sustainability of computational research infrastructures. This needs to be tackled at European and global levels. 

Kimmo Koski  is managing director at the CSC­­ IT Center for Science in Finland

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up