< Research Project

An Environmentalist’s Guide to Quantum Computing

David Rejeski

October 2022

Network for the Digital Economy and the Environment

There is growing interest in, and increasing investments being made in, quantum computing. Industry and government investments totaled approximately $5 billion USD in 2021, with funding for startups doubling during that year. As one might expect, significant hype surrounds this novel technology. Here is a recent sampling of a few billboards along today’s information highway: “Quantum computing just might save the planet”, “Quantum computers could change the world – provided they work”, and “Quantum Computing Will Be Bigger Than the Discovery of Fire!”

All this hype is likely to leave policymakers and the environmental community confused about the promise of a technology few can even comprehend. The purpose of this paper is to look beyond the ‘reality distortion field’ surrounding quantum computing and elucidate the potential of quantum computing in addressing society’s environmental challenges.

This paper poses four questions related to quantum computing, namely:

  1. If practical quantum computers emerge, what could they do for the planet that existing supercomputers, or other competing technologies (even outside of the IT sector), cannot?

  2. Can quantum computing provide solutions in a timely and equitable manner, in ways that address the scale and urgency of environmental problems?

  3. Could quantum computing exacerbate existing energy and resource use and associated environmental damages?

  4. What policies might be put in place to advance both the technology, its positive environmental impacts, and its global access?

This paper summarizes research that looks at what is known (and not known) about the energy use of quantum computing systems and the environmental benefits from potential quantum computing applications. It attempts to separate realistic short-term applications from applications that may be decades away.

Watch Dave Rejeski’s presentation of his paper at the Weizenbaum Institute.