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Communications of the ACM

Editor's letter

Computing's Grand Challenge for Sustainability

Andrew A. Chien, past Editor-in-Chief of CACM

In 2022, climate change has arrived with a vengeance, evidenced by deadly heatwaves in the U.S., U.K., and Europe. We have seen deadly and environment-destroying wildfires in France, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and the southwestern U.S. And across the world, the increasing weather extremes due to climate change are producing both widespread droughts, and ironically, torrential flooding.

It's self-evident that "Climate change is everyone's problem, and no one can hide from it." This is an "All-hands on deck" problem. The growing chorus sounding this message includes the UN Secretary General,a the International Panel of Climate Change, governments of nations worldwide,b and of course Greta Thunberg.c

How should the computing community respond?

The computing community must embrace the challenge to reduce the carbon-emissions and other environmental impacts of computing. These massive and growing impacts are not only well documented,"d but a recent U.S. National Academies report on responsible computing research specifically calls for addressing climate impact as "Environmental Externalities," an essential part of computing research.e

While there are wonderful, high-minded uses of computing—for example, climate modeling, precision engineering, breakthrough science—the reality is less noble. Just as telephony evolved from serious business purpose to casual social interaction, much of computing supports enjoyment, connection, and commerce. Social networking. Instant messaging. Dating. Gaming. Advertising. Logistics. Many of the "tech titans" are built on advertising, social networking, e-commerce, and so on. These are important to society, personal well being, and profits. All too often, they also increase carbon emissions, encouraging consumption that further destroys the earth's environment.

To shoulder its responsibility, the computing community should embrace a grand challenge to reduce the carbon-emissions and environmental impact of computing in absolute terms dramatically, and if possible, to zero. This includes scope 2 and 3 carbon emissions, product e-waste, water use, mineral-extraction environmental damage, and more. Only with dramatic reductions can we hope to shrink the negative absolute impacts of rapidly growing computing use. This daunting challenge is rife with hard research problems; there's no five-year or even 25-year plan to solve it. But we must accept responsibility and get started.

What can you do? (As a member of the computing community)

  • Participate in the growing number of research conferences and workshopsf focused on computing sustain-ability. USENIX recently held a new workshop—Hot Carbon—where ideas included lifecycles and technology that wean computing from its "fast fashion" model, datacenter designs and workload management to help the power grid absorb more renewable energy, and new computing models with temporal flexibility.
  • Talk with students, peers, or employees about sustainability. Channel their passion and creativity into the sustainability grand challenge and to overcome inertia in corporate, academic, and research community thinking.
  • Reject goals that falsely limit the responsibility to solve the problem. Offsets were never sufficient. Renewable power purchases are not either. And individual net zero carbon isn't either. For this "All-hands on Deck" challenge, each organization or individual needs to do everything they can!

In the coming year, we are planning a special issue for Communications that will focus on sustainability and the deep challenges that computing faces, with the goal of inspiring research and new ideas.

Andrew A. Chien, SENIOR EDITOR

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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 National Laboratory. He is a former editor-in-chief of Communications.

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a. UN. Secretary-General Warns of Climate Emergency, Calling Intergovernmental Panel's Report 'a File of Shame,' While Saying Leaders 'Are Lying,' Fueling Flames;

b. M. Joselow. Al Gore on the Inflation Reduction Act: 'It took so long.' WaPo (Aug. 16, 2022).

c. G. Thunberg. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. Penguin, 2019.

d. A.A. Chien. Good, Better, Best: How Sustainable Should Computing Be? (Dec. 2021), Driving the Cloud to True Zero Carbon (Feb. 2021); What Do DDT and Computing Have in Common? (June 2020); Owning Computing's Environmental Impact (Mar. 2019), Commun. ACM.

e. Nat. Acad. Sciences, Eng., and Med. Fostering Responsible Computing Research: Foundations and Practices. Sec. 3.1.6. National Academies Press, 2022.

f. USENIX HotCarbon: Sustainable Computer Systems Design and Implementation (July 2022); Computing Landscapes for Environ. Account. and Responsibility, (June 2021); Climate Change AI @ NeurIPS 2022; Fragile Earth KDD Workshop (2022).

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