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An empty airport gate area.

Theoretical Computer Scientists for Future is an initiative to reduce the carbon emissions of the computer science research community at least 50% by 2030.

Credit: Eric Prouzet/Unsplash

Even as researchers get a taste of a low-carbon academic world due to the COVID-19 crisis, a group of computer scientists has launched a new initiative to make their field more sustainable.

Theoretical Computer Scientists for Future (TCS4F) is an initiative to reduce the carbon emissions of the computer science research community by at least 50% before 2030, relative to pre-2020 levels. Named after 'Fridays for Future', the youth climate movement inspired by Swedish teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the TCS4F's 50% goal has been committed to by several research groups and conferences, including HIGHLIGHTS 2020 (Highlights of Logic, Games, and Automata), and the Symposium on Theoretical Aspects of Computer Science (STACS 2020). The initiative's manifesto, a "Pledge for sustainable research in theoretical computer science," has been signed by 128 researchers, three research groups, and three conferences: Highlights, STACS, and Computer Science Logic (CSL), the annual conference of the European Association for Computer Science Logic.

Thomas Schwentick, a professor of computer science at Germany's Technische Universität Dortmund (TU Dortmund), set the initiative in motion last autumn after discussing climate change with colleagues and attending demonstrations for climate action in Germany. He teamed up with Thomas Colcombet and Hugo Férée, both from the Research Institute on the Foundations of Computer Science (IRIF) at the Université de Paris, to build the TCS4F website, which went live in late March.

At the same time, researchers worldwide have been forced by COVID-19 to cut back on their most carbon-intensive activity: travel by plane to international conferences and other events. This has provided an opportunity for computer scientists to explore more sustainable ways of working that could point the way to achieving the TCS4F goal; in particular, by attending conferences online. Though previously doubtful about the format, many are finding their assumptions about it overturned. "We were afraid that video talks would be very bad, and now we see that they can be actually very good," says Schwentick, pointing to the success of the recent EBDT/ICDT online conference, which he attended.

The virtual format for conferences is set to continue. The corresponding drop in travel during the peak of European and American conference season is particularly significant for computer science which, unlike many other disciplines, puts heavy emphasis on publishing in conference proceedings. "It means you have to attend conferences and present your talk, and it's quite common to have people who have 10 or 20 papers in the same year,' says Colcombet.

Over the course of a career, a researcher can accumulate a massive amount of air miles and associated carbon emissions, as Moshe Y. Vardi, Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering and Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University, observed when he wrote that he had traveled more than two million miles over 20 years.

The responsibility of the science community to reduce its climate impact has been gaining recognition in recent years, with other initiatives taking various approaches. Scientists for Future (S4F), a group that served to inspire Schwentick, was formed in Germany last year to advise climate action groups and engage in public climate communication. S4F's '#unter1000' project encourages scientists to give up flights for distances under 1,000 kilometers (roughly 620 miles).

In 2017, ACM's Special Interest Group on Programming Languages (SIGPLAN) formed a climate committee that focuses on measuring emissions from conferences and establishing a carbon offset program.

TCS4F is intended to get the research community first to agree on the goal of emissions reduction, and then to figure out how best to meet it. The organizers expect the experiences from the lockdown to provide lessons, if not for online conferences to become the norm.

"The scientific part is easy to do online, but the social aspect is the one that's difficult to replicate," says Antoine Amarilli, associate professor of computer science at France's Télécom Paris and a TSC4F co-organizer. Schwentick thinks the trick will be to create hybrid conferences mixing virtual and physical elements, allowing at least those located farthest away to attend remotely. The format could prove popular: in a survey of attendees at EBDT/ICDT, 72.3% of 112 respondents agreed they would "support the idea of having hybrid conferences for reducing CO2 emissions."

The TCS4F organizers would like more conferences to endorse the manifesto and begin working together towards the 50% emissions reduction goal. 'It makes most sense if there is a network of conferences and they coordinate their ideas and share their experiences so that the whole community learns how to do this properly,' says Schwentick.

Conferences are not the only research activities with a climate impact; workshops, Ph.D. defenses, and other forms of collaborative working produce emissions through travel and use of other resources. TCS4F seeks to reduce emissions across the board. The organizers feel optimistic about making a difference as the manifesto gains more support. "It helps us all feel less alone," says Amarilli. "It's easier to say out loud you're concerned and to take action if you don't feel like you're the odd one out."

Claire Hamlett is a freelance writer based in Oxford, U.K. ; find her on Twitter @HamlettClaire.


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