Sustainable computing the UK’s journey to net zero digital research infrastructure by 2040Posted on August 4, 2023 (Last modified on October 19, 2023) • 5 min read • 1,060 words
Leading UK data and computing experts have developed a toolkit and roadmap to get the UK’s digital research infrastructure sector to net zero.
Over the last 2 years, we have led a scoping project that has compiled recommendations for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to ensure all digital tools used in the sector - from supercomputers like JASMIN to staff laptops - will be sustainable within the next 17 years. The final technical report has now been published and is freely available for anyone to make use of.
Dr Martin Juckes, Head of Atmospheric Science at CEDA, explains: “This scoping project has examined both the energy consumed by the computers in use and the impact of the supply chain. The recommendations we are putting forward will support ambitious environmental sustainability targets, which have been set for the nine organisations that make up UKRI, to be met by 2040 or preferably much sooner.”
The scoping project has developed a toolkit, and roadmapped the initial steps required, for the decarbonisation of our national digital research infrastructure. This project was made possible by a £1.9 million investment from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) on behalf of UKRI.
Over 180 evidence-based recommendations have been synthesised by the scoping project team - involving CEDA, over 90 UK researchers, and more than 20 nationwide research institutes. The recommendations recognise UKRI’s ambition for facilitating state-of-the-art computing tools and techniques, while playing a leading role in navigating the transition to an equitable and sustainable future.
A new holistic toolkit now sets out the proposals for reaching net zero - supported by a clear roadmap - and intended for people that use, manage, maintain, fund, or make decisions about digital research infrastructure.
Dr Martin Juckes, who was a driving force behind the project, sets out the key findings from the scoping work:
“The key areas contributing to digital research infrastructure emissions are the purchase of electricity, the manufacture of hardware, the use and the carbon footprint of laptops, and the influence of digital research infrastructure on research and innovation outcomes.
“The target of achieving net zero emissions by 2040 is extremely challenging, but there is a strong determination to meet that challenge in all areas of the digital research infrastructure and the UK research community that depends on it.
“A broad set of actions, technical and organisational, need to be implemented across all levels of UKRI to ensure emissions are reduced, and it calls for a community-wide paradigm shift. Individuals and organisations all have a shared responsibility to enact changes.
“The outcomes of this scoping project were wholly dependent on the immense commitment of staff to tackle a series of challenges and knowledge gaps. This reinforced that people across sectors must work together and learn through action. Peers and suppliers should be sharing examples and best practices, training future experts, and creating new innovative solutions. But, this complex work will require the collective efforts of leaders and staff at all levels of the organisations and sectors involved or affected.
“The sooner we start implementing changes, however large or small, the sooner we can start our collective journey to net zero. In our report we seek to combine the narrative of the journey, the timeline of the roadmap, and the mechanistic support of the toolkit with the sense of enthusiasm and optimism that so many partners and stakeholders brought to the project.
“There are uncertainties, there are gaps in our knowledge, and some problems remain to be solved. These are not, nor must they be allowed to be seen as, reasons for inaction. The transition to net zero is vital for action on climate change, and it is clearer than it has ever been that the time to act is now.”
The toolkit sets out the “what” can be done.
The evidence-based recommendations are synthesised into six areas that reflect the challenges likely to be faced as we embark on the net zero journey:
Reflecting the actions required and the mechanisms available to effect change, the roadmap describes “how” UKRI can implement the recommendations by 2040 or sooner.
The roadmap is organised into three delivery pathways:
The scoping project led by CEDA has produced detailed technical analysis, a literature survey, and has compiled results from community and stakeholder engagement and consulting activities. The technical report will be complemented by an overview document - detailing the roadmap and toolkit - that will summarise the key conclusions and recommendations in a more accessible way. The overview document is not yet published, but will be available at the following link when it is ready: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.8203117
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