But computing’s unprecedented suc-
cess has produced an explosion in its
use, quantity, and direct environmen-
tal 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 opera-
tions to reduce this growing impact.a
The transition to SSDs and the con-
solidation of enterprise computing
into efficient cloud datacenters has for
a decade blunted the impact of grow-
ing computing use. But cloud com-
puting’s extraordinary scale (200TWh,
$200B in 2017) and ICT’s projected
power growth (to 21% of global power
consumption by 2030)5 drive the rapid
growth of the cloud’s atmospheric carbon emissions.
3, 6 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-
a Of course, I do not mean to imply that there
have been no efforts to date—much to the
contrary. But, rather to call for renewed and
universal engagement on this agenda.
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
7 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.
Some computing professionals believe that Moore’s Law or Dennard scaling mitigates these problems. Far from
it, they actually exacerbate it! Efficiency
is not a solution, as 19th-century British Economist William Stanley Jevons
noted in 1865, “efficiency increases
consumption,” a rule widely known as
Carbon offsets are constructive,
but not enough. As regions undertake
ambitious 100% renewable fraction
goals—San Diego (2035), California
(2045), European Union (entire econ-
omy 2045)—offsets are of decreasing
benefit. Real solutions must achieve di-
rect matching and supply following.
Recycling programs are constructive,
but less than 20% of e-waste is recycled—it is just not economic. Innovative approaches to capture or render
benign e-waste are a critical need.
Computing technologies and systems must be designed and shaped
for lower carbon and environmental
impact. Here is a call to action to the
computing community: Let’s adopt
goals equally ambitious to those of the
Let’s create technologies and systems that in their manufacture, construction, and operation approach the
goal of 100% carbon-free and neutral
Andrew A. Chien, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
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
1. Dreyfuss, E. How Google keeps its power hungry
operations carbon neutral. Wired (Dec. 1, 2018).
2. Google White Paper. Moving toward 24x7 Carbon-Free Energy at Google Data Centers: Progress and
3. Greenpeace. Clicking Clean: Who is winning the race to
build a green Internet?
4. Jevon, W. The Coal Question. Macmillan, 1865.
5. Jones, N. How to stop data centres from gobbling up
the world’s electricity. Nature (Sept. 12, 2018).
6. Shehabi, A. et al., United States Data Center Energy
Usage Report. LBNL, June 2016.
7. United Nations University. The Global E-waste Monitor
2017 (Dec. 2017).
8. Yang, F. and Chien, A.A. ZCCloud: Exploring Wasted
Green Power for High-Performance Computing,
IPDPS, May 2016.
Copyright held by author.
DOI: 10.1145/3310359 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 less than 20%
of e-waste is recycled.