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Sustainable computing: the UK’s journey to net zero digital research infrastructure by 2040

Leading UK data and computing experts have developed a toolkit and roadmap to get the UK’s digital research infrastructure sector to net zero.

Over the last 2 years, the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA) has led a scoping project that has compiled recommendations for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to ensure all digital tools used in the sector – from supercomputers like JASMIN to staff laptops – will be sustainable within the next 17 years.

This scoping project has examined both the energy consumed by the computers in use and the impact of the supply chain. The recommendations we are putting forward will support ambitious environmental sustainability targets, which have been set for the nine organisations that make up UKRI, to be met by 2040 or preferably much sooner.

Dr Martin Juckes, Head of Atmospheric Science at CEDA

The scoping project has developed a toolkit, and roadmapped the initial steps required, for the decarbonisation of our national digital research infrastructure. This project was made possible by a £1.9 million investment from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) on behalf of UKRI.

Over 180 evidence-based recommendations have been synthesised by the scoping project team – involving CEDA, over 40 UK researchers, and more than 20 nationwide research institutes.

The recommendations recognise UKRI’s ambition for facilitating state-of-the-art computing tools and techniques, while playing a leading role in navigating the transition to an equitable and sustainable future.

A new holistic toolkit now sets out the proposals for reaching net zero – supported by a clear roadmap – and intended for people that use, manage, maintain, fund, or make decisions about digital research infrastructure.

Dr Martin Juckes, who was a driving force behind the project, sets out the key findings from the scoping work: 

“The key areas contributing to digital research infrastructure emissions are the purchase of electricity, the manufacture of hardware, the use and the carbon footprint of laptops, and the influence of digital research infrastructure on research and innovation outcomes.

“The target of achieving net zero emissions by 2040 is extremely challenging, but there is a strong determination to meet that challenge in all areas of the digital research infrastructure and the UK research community that depends on it.

“A broad set of actions, technical and organisational, need to be implemented across all levels of UKRI to ensure emissions are reduced, and it calls for a community-wide paradigm shift. Individuals and organisations all have a shared responsibility to enact changes.

“The outcomes of this scoping project were wholly dependent on the immense commitment of staff to tackle a series of challenges and knowledge gaps. This reinforced that people across sectors must work together and learn through action. Peers and suppliers should be sharing examples and best practices, training future experts, and creating new innovative solutions. But, this complex work will require the collective efforts of leaders and staff at all levels of the organisations and sectors involved or affected.

“The sooner we start implementing changes, however large or small, the sooner we can start our collective journey to net zero. In our report we seek to combine the narrative of the journey, the timeline of the roadmap, and the mechanistic support of the toolkit with the sense of enthusiasm and optimism that so many partners and stakeholders brought to the project.

“There are uncertainties, there are gaps in our knowledge, and some problems remain to be solved. These are not, nor must they be allowed to be seen as, reasons for inaction. The transition to net zero is vital for action on climate change, and it is clearer than it has ever been that the time to act is now.”

Six elements of the sustainable computing strategic toolkit

The toolkit sets out the “what” can be done. 

The evidence-based recommendations are synthesised into six areas that reflect the challenges likely to be faced as we embark on the net zero journey:

  1. Mission Focus: continuous assessment and focus on the mission of achieving sustainability; active measures to counter the risk of enhanced demand negating efficiency gains.
  2. Recognition of shared responsibility: mandate and empower all staff (from student to CEO) to take proportionate action to drive change and reduce the environmental impact of their work; community building; encourage discussion among colleagues and learn from others to foster positive changes in behaviour.
  3. Action-based-research: work must start now with commitment appropriate to the climate emergency while recognising that there will be a need for regular checks and adjustments; focus on progress not perfection; small steps; learn from experience.
  4. Work with peers and suppliers: through contracts, conditionalities, and understanding mutual benefits, to develop a low carbon supply chain (essential in the longer term).
  5. Build and Share Knowledge: providing leadership, support and advice for business cases and large procurements feeding into reporting; central hub for information and institutional knowledge (also likely to create short term results).
  6. Green Software Engineering: creating a body of expertise around green software engineering, providing training, developing tools, metrics, expert assessment, and standards to transform current approaches to writing code, and supporting codes running in data centres, such that GSE becomes the norm rather than an optional extra.

Three delivery pathways for reaching net zero digital research infrastructure by 2040

Reflecting the actions required and the mechanisms available to effect change, the roadmap describes “how” UKRI can implement the recommendations by 2040 or sooner. 

The roadmap is organised into three delivery pathways:

  1. UKRI policy and governance, creating a policy framework which can deliver the steps needed to achieve the net zero ambition.
  2. Delivery partnership, in which funders and facility leads or service providers work together to implement the fundamental changes required.
  3. Competitive funding, which develops the necessary capabilities and tools drawing on the creativity, diversity and strength in depth of the UK academic community.

The scoping project led by CEDA has produced detailed technical analysis, a literature survey, and has compiled results from community and stakeholder engagement and consulting activities. A technical report will be complemented by an overview document – detailing the roadmap and toolkit – that will summarise the key conclusions and recommendations in a more accessible way.