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When Does Saving Power Save the Planet?

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Conference Paper

Woodruff, Jackson, David Schall, Michael F.P. O’Boyle, and Christopher Woodruff. 2023. “When Does Saving Power Save the Planet?” In Proceedings of the 2nd Workshop on Sustainable Computer Systems, 1–6. Boston MA USA: ACM.

The computing industry accounts for 2% of the world’s emissions.
Power-efficient computing is a frequent topic of research, but saving
power does not always save the environment. Jevons’ paradox states
that resource savings from increases in efficiency will be more than
compensated for by increased demand by a process called rebound
— making these ineffective ways to decrease emissions.
This is not the case for all applications within computing: applications
whose demand is inelastic with respect to power consumption
can have reduced power consumption. We analyze several large
fields within computer science, including ML, the Internet and IoT,
and provide directions on where power efficiency savings will help
reduce carbon emissions.
We present the economic tools needed to decide whether powerefficiency
improvements are likely to result in reduced or increased
emissions. We conclude that many problems in computer science
do have characteristics of rebound, meaning that green energy is
the only solution for many fields.

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