Decomputerize to decarbonize: A climate debate we can’t avoid

News: Our planet faces an existential threat, with climate change and global warming threatening to make it un-liveable in a few decades.

Digitization doesn’t just pose a risk to people, It also poses a risk to the planet.

How computerization and technology adoption is contributing to climate change?

One huge factor ruining our planet is the uninhibited computerization and technology adoption, as is visible from the following facts:

– A UN study revealed that the manufacture of one desktop computer took 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1,500 kg of water.

– A University of Massachusetts team calculated that training one model for natural-language processing emits 626,155 pounds of carbon dioxide, what 125 New York–Beijing round trips will produce. OpenAI has estimated that the computing used to train a single AI model is increasing by a factor of 10 every year.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) —the branch of artificial intelligence (AI) that helps ‘virtual assistants’ like Alexa understand humans.

Hundreds of data centres that Google, Microsoft and others use water and power at alarming rates. As per reports, data centres consume 200 terawatt hours per year. This is roughly the same amount as South Africa, and is likely to grow 4-5 times by 2030, which would put it on par with Japan, the world’s fourth-biggest energy consumer.

Semiconductor chips: A fabrication unit takes $20 billion to build and need 2-4 million gallons of ultra-pure water per day, roughly equal to the needs of an American city of 50,000 people.

In fact, the carbon footprint of the world’s computational infrastructure has matched that of the aviation industry at its peak, and it is increasing at a faster rate.

Hence, decomputerization is necessary for decarbonization.

What is the way forward?

Though we don’t need a ‘Luddite revolution’ but in order to decarbonize, we must decomputerize. This does not mean getting rid of computers, but only the unnecessary ones in our homes and offices.

Luddites were the members of the organized bands of 19th-century English handicraftsmen who rioted for the destruction of the textile machinery that was displacing them. Today, the term is usually referred to any person who is against technology.

Source: This post is based on the article “Decomputerize to decarbonize: A climate debate we can’t avoid” published in Livemint on 25th Nov 2021.

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