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Chasing Carbon: The Elusive Environmental Footprint of Computing

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Conference Paper

U. Gupta, Y. Kim, S. Lee, J. Tse, H. S. Lee, G. Wei, D. Brooks, and C. Wu. 2021. “Chasing Carbon: The Elusive Environmental Footprint of Computing.” In 2021 IEEE International Symposium on High-Performance Computer Architecture (HPCA), 854–67. https://doi.org/10.1109/HPCA51647.2021.00076.

Given recent algorithm, software, and hardware innovation, computing has enabled a plethora of new applications. As computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, however, so does its environmental impact. This paper brings the issue to the attention of computer-systems researchers. Our analysis, built on industry-reported characterization, quantifies the environmental effects of computing in terms of carbon emissions. Broadly, carbon emissions have two sources: operational energy consumption, and hardware manufacturing and infrastructure. Although carbon emissions from the former are decreasing thanks to algorithmic, software, and hardware innovations that boost performance and power efficiency, the overall carbon footprint of computer systems continues to grow. This work quantifies the carbon output of computer systems to show that most emissions related to modern mobile and data-center equipment come from hardware manufacturing and infrastructure. We therefore outline future directions for minimizing the environmental impact of computing systems.

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