Computing Within Limits

LIMITS

I have just attended LIMITS 22, the eight annual workshop on computing within limits.

As the name suggests, the workshop addresses the role of computing in human societies affected by real-world limits, for example limits of extractive logics, limits to a biosphere’s ability to recover, limits to our knowledge, or limits to technological “solutions”.

Very much tied to the interests of the TechnologyBloggers website, this collection of researchers and practitioners aim to reshape the computing research agenda, grounded by an awareness that contemporary computing research is intertwined with ecological limits in general and climate- and climate justice-related limits in particular.

This was a virtual distributed workshop, with many participants joining hubs so that they could avoid travel but still attend a social event. I touched upon this as a model in my post about conferencing a few weeks ago.

I attended one of such hubs in Rotterdam (Netherlands), held at Varia, a space for developing collective approaches to everyday technology. There were a dozen people there, computer programmers, university lecturers and students and the likes, which made for interesting discussion during the break-out sessions and a very nice social mix.

I won’t go into the individual presentations too much, but would like to highlight a few of the questions addressed and point readers towards some resources.

What is the carbon footprint of streaming media?

Researchers estimate that streaming media accounts for about 1% of global carbon emissions. These emissions are created throughout the chain, with only a small percentage visible to users (the electricity that appears on their household bills), the vast majority hidden as it is produced during data storage, cooling, delivery, maintaining back-up systems and during a miriad of other processes (not to mention construction, mining of raw materials, etc).

This website offers lots of information, beginning with the startling revelation that ICT in general is estimated to use about 7% of all electricity used, so may contribute (depending how the electricity is produced) to up to almost 4% of global greenhouse gasses.

So the actual carbon footprint is very difficult to measure, with a range offered for watching a streamed film as equivalent to burning between 1.2 and 164 kilos of coal (depending on your calculations and not the film).

The large data centres providers often claim that they use clean energy for their centres, but this was also questioned as their mass use of this energy has been shown to monopolize access, at very least having an enormous effect on the local networks and sometimes resulting in others having to use fossil fonts,. Their green claims were described as cherry-picked.

Digital platforms

Well we all love a digital platform don’t we? Facilitating car sharing, what could be better than that? Well even here a critical perspective appears, as we have to add ICT emissions to real emissions if calculating the possible environmental implications. And not only that! For example, using one car instead of two halves the emissions for analytical purposes, but on top of this we should add the ICT emissions (which as we know are difficult to work out). But we can come up with an estimate. Then behavioural change might also come into play. People might drive further because they are sharing, some will share a car and leave the bike at home or not take the usual train. It all becomes rather murky.

Other discussions

Other questions arose: what are the implications of framing the discussion in terms of limits, rather than abundance? Could such a reframing bring in an ethics of care? Can we discuss the relationship between humans and nature and its ties to capitalism? What role can religion take? How important are imaginaries of the (technological) future? Does the public have the information required to understand the environmental implications of their choices?

As you can see, it was very stimulating.

Check out this website for a perspective.

And the Chaos Computer Club for another.

The papers are all available here so fill your boots.

Conferences and their Environmental Impacts

Audience listens to the lecturer at a conference

International science and business conferences often involve flying large numbers of people across the world, but what about the solution of online only or hybrid online/in-person events? Last week I attended a sustainable research conference that was offered as a hybrid, with physical presence as well as online offered. A great idea at first sight.

A hybrid conference is not as organizationally simple as one might think as they are technically complex. Fully online conferences are easier to organize, but they run into time-zone problems, and the hybrid solution risks building a two-tear scientific community: those who travel, network and socialize in person, and those who attend from their own homes or offices.

This may have implications, as those attending in person benefit from knowledge exchange and networking to a greater extent, which may be not only advantageous for their scientific development but also for their careers.

On the other hand, those travelling for work (through no choice of their own) may feel that they should not be, which could bring personal and psychological problems.

As part of ongoing research into the environmental consequences of conference-going, last week’s attendees were all asked to complete a questionnaire so that the environmental implications of their in-person attendance could be measured. Questions addressed how they had travelled, were they staying overnight and which food choices they had made, all of which can be used to generate data.

And here lies the difficult question.

I learned a lot from attending, I grew my network and I enjoyed myself. I left rejuvenated! If I had the choice, I would not give up on attending conferences, because I believe that at the end of the day there is more to gain from attending in person than from following online, even at such a well-organized and participatory event that even included desk yoga.

Learning Includes the fact that attending led me to interrogate myself and my own actions and choices when presented the possibility of presenting or attending a conference either online or in person, and discuss these contradictory feelings with others who face the same conundrum, in a relaxed social setting.

But how much gain is there from personal attendance in relation to the environmental impact. Flying is unavoidable for many, but we all know that CO2 emissions are enormous from such trips.

In my experience conferences have often been the starting points for projects and even books. It is very difficult to imagine how calculations could be made that took gain (or possible gain) into account in relation to pollution though. What is the value of publishing a book or participating in a project?

The EU stopped funding travel during COVID, so we were all in some way forced to attend conferences virtually. But now that conferences are once again appearing in person, how can we make decisions about whether to attend or not?

The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions

Last month (April 2022) the International Energy Agency made a few corrections to its 2021 report The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. There are a couple of versions available online, the full report (250 pages) and a much shorter extract or Executive Summary.

I would like to propose a few points to mull over taken from my understanding of the findings.

From the report:

Solar photovoltaic (PV) plants, wind farms and electric vehicles (EVs) generally require more minerals to build than their fossil fuel-based counterparts. A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant. Since 2010 the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has increased by 50% as the share of renewables in new investment has risen.

Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are crucial to battery performance, longevity and energy density. Rare earth elements are essential for permanent magnets that are vital for wind turbines and EV motors. Electricity networks need a huge amount of copper and aluminium, with copper being a cornerstone for all electricity-related technologies.

As energy transitions gather pace, clean energy technologies are becoming the fastest-growing segment of demand. In a scenario that meets the Paris Agreement goals (as in the IEA Sustainable Development Scenario [SDS]), their share of total demand rises significantly over the next two decades to over 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium.

The report estimates that the need for these minerals will double between today and 2040, but if we are to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement the increase would be four-fold, and to reach net zero carbon emission six times as much as currently produced would be required.

The growth is not equally distributed across sectors however. If we are looking at storage (batteries) for electric vehicles and the likes:

Lithium sees the fastest growth, with demand growing by over 40 times by 2040, followed by graphite, cobalt and nickel (around 20-25 times). The growth of hydrogen as an energy carrier brings different mineral uses and growth in demand for nickel and zirconium for electrolysers, and for platinum-group metals for fuel cells. 

Existing mines and projects under construction is estimated to meet only half of projected lithium and cobalt requirements and 80% of copper needs by 2030, and it takes on average 16.5 years to take the first minerals out of the ground after discovery, so the clock is well and truly ticking.

As regular readers will know, I am interested in the geopolitical implications of technological development, so here are a few more nougats for thought:

For lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements, the world’s top three producing nations control well over three-quarters of global output. In some cases, a single country is responsible for around half of worldwide production. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and People’s Republic of China (China) were responsible for some 70% and 60% of global production of cobalt and rare earth elements respectively in 2019.

The level of concentration is even higher for processing operations, where China has a strong presence across the board. China’s share of refining is around 35% for nickel, 50-70% for lithium and cobalt, and nearly 90% for rare earth elements.

And we have to remember that mining for minerals is not always a pretty affair, and brings lots of social and environmental concerns.

The report makes six recommendation that are summarized in the Executive version as follows:

1. Ensure adequate investment in diversified sources of new supply. Strong signals from policy makers about the speed of energy transitions and the growth trajectories of key clean energy technologies are critical to bring forward timely investment in new supply. Governments can play a major role in creating conditions conducive to diversified investment in the mineral supply chain.

2. Promote technology innovation at all points along the value chain. Stepping up R&D efforts for technology innovation on both the demand and production sides can enable more efficient use of materials, allow material substitution and unlock sizeable new supplies, thereby bringing substantial environmental and security benefits.

3. Scale up recycling. Policies can play a pivotal role in preparing for rapid growth of waste volumes by incentivising recycling for products reaching the end of their operating lives, supporting efficient collection and sorting activities and funding R&D into new recycling technologies.

4. Enhance supply chain resilience and market transparency. Policy makers need to explore a range of measures to improve the resilience of supply chains for different minerals, develop response capabilities to potential supply disruptions and enhance market transparency. Measures can include regular market assessments and stress-tests, as well as strategic stockpiles in some instances.

5. Mainstream higher environmental, social and governance standards. Efforts to incentivise higher environmental and social performance can increase sustainably and responsibly produced volumes and lower the cost of sourcing them. If players with strong environmental and social performance are rewarded in the marketplace, it can lead to greater diversification among supply.

6. Strengthen international collaboration between producers and consumers. An overarching international framework for dialogue and policy co-ordination among producers and consumers can play a vital role, an area where the IEA’s energy security framework could usefully be leveraged. Such an initiative could include actions to (i) provide reliable and transparent data; (ii) conduct regular assessments of potential vulnerabilities across supply chains and potential collective responses; (iii) promote knowledge transfer and capacity building to spread sustainable and responsible development practices; and (iv) strengthen environmental and social performance standards to ensure a level playing field.

All of which would fit within a Responsible Innovation approach.

Take a look at the executive summary linked above (the full report is also available there). All of this information is presented in graph form and very easy to digest.