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Communications of the ACM


NSF on Chien's Grand Challenge for Sustainability

hand with a tree in its palm extends from the green screen of a laptop computer, illustration

Credit: Elenyska

The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) advances understanding of the principles and uses of next-generation computing, communications, and information systems in service to society; supports advanced cyberinfrastructure that enables and accelerates discovery and innovation across all science and engineering disciplines; and contributes to universal, transparent, and affordable participation in an information-based society. CISE provides approximately 80% of the federal funding for fundamental computer science research at U.S. academic institutions.

Andrew A. Chien's Communications editorial "Computing's Grand Challenge for Sustainability"a (Oct. 2022) lays out a compelling and timely challenge for environmental sustainability: "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." The role of computing and environmental sustainability, as noted in Chien's editorial, can be viewed in two different ways: "Computing in Sustainability" and "Sustainability in Computing." This Viewpoint focuses on ways the computing community can contribute broadly to environmental sustainability and identifies CISE research programs supporting these efforts.


Andrew Chien

Terrific to see both this viewpoint and the NSF's initiatives in both "Computing for Sustainability" and recently "Sustainability of Computing"! These are two critical roles and challenges for computing to be a positive force for environmental sustainability.

I applaud and support the broader focus on "embodied carbon" (not embodied energy) and lifecycle impacts of electronics and computing. This broader scope is critical to progress finding ways to reduce computing's negative environmental impact in the face of exponentially increasing use of computing (eg. digitalization, AI/ML, pervasive intelligence, and move)!

Its worth observing that operational and embodied carbon are closely coupled -- TSMC's operational carbon turns into Apple's product lifecycle embodied carbon, etc. Worse, large differences in embodied carbon may be possible with "supplier selection" rather than computing technical design choices. This makes it essential to root design and metrics for research in data that is supplier neutral... a challenge for research. For example, how do we characterize a 5nm process? 3nm process? stably, in a fashion independent of vendor. Would a design company (eg Nvidia, Apple, Qualcomm) select a foundry provider based on sustainability metrics over silicon capability?

In the other direction, we can work on embodied carbon by reducing operational carbon in the supply chain (eg decarbonize Taiwan's or South Korea's power grid), or the use phase (use low-carbon power).

Note: The coupling of operational and embodied carbon is a design feature of the GHG (green house gas) reporting protocols, not a defect. The GHG protocol designers' objective is to drive overall societal reductions, for which business organization and vendor selection is a critical element.

cheers, -Andrew

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