Written by: Sarah Marquart

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $12 million to a multi-institutional team of researchers that includes Cornell Tech Assistant Professor Udit Gupta for an initiative to establish new standards for carbon accounting in the computing industry.

The multi-institutional team is led by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, and consists of distinguished researchers at California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, The Ohio State University, and Yale University, in addition to Cornell.

The project, called “NSF Expeditions in Computing: Carbon Connect — An Ecosystem for Sustainable Computing,” comes at a critical time. Computing currently generates two to four percent of global emissions, a figure poised to climb as the demand for digital solutions surges. This rise is driven by the proliferation of consumer devices — wearables, AR/VR headsets, mobile phones — advanced communication systems like 4G, 5G, and soon 6G, and the expanding infrastructure of data centers.

“Simultaneously, realizing pervasive efficiency improvements is becoming increasingly more challenging due to the slowing of Moore’s Law,” said Gupta, underlining the urgency of this initiative. “If left unchecked, computing’s energy and environmental footprint will grow tremendously in the coming decade.”

Over the next five years, this grant will provide crucial support to the team as they embark on a mission to redefine the approach of computer scientists to environmental sustainability. They plan to achieve this through three key strategies, each designed to address a specific aspect of the challenge.

First, the team will investigate new models, frameworks, and tools to help engineers accurately measure and report the environmental impact of computing systems across their lifetimes. This is important, as, currently, there is a lack of easily accessible tools and data on the carbon footprint of different software and hardware systems, leading to a lack of standardization in data collection and reporting methods.

“We hope to develop tools to allow hardware and software engineers to elevate sustainability as a first-order design consideration alongside performance, efficiency, and quality of service,” said Gupta. “This will allow developers to carefully weigh the environmental impact of new technologies.”

Next, the researchers will create new methodologies to develop sustainable computing systems in the future, with the goal of reducing computing’s carbon footprint by 45 percent within the next decade. Achieving this will require a combination of solutions to mitigate operational carbon (from using computing chips and their energy consumption) and embodied carbon (from manufacturing computing chips).

“Some ideas we are particularly excited about are considering emerging technologies at the circuit and VLSI level, extending the lifetime of our servers to amortize manufacturing emissions, and creating new algorithmic techniques to mitigate the footprint of AI training and inference,” said Gupta.

Finally, the team will build educational materials to help bring sustainable computing to these and other universities.

The researchers hope their efforts will contribute to a more sustainable future while influencing future energy policy and legislation, which can have significant ripple effects. “Policy can have a large impact in encouraging technology companies to transparently report the carbon footprint of computing systems,” says Gupta. “This is crucial not only to foster new research and innovation in high-impact areas of sustainable computing but also to ensure our methods of carbon modeling and optimizations are being translated to real-world use cases to mitigate the carbon footprint of systems.”

Carbon Connect – An Ecosystem for Sustainable Computing is one of three NSF-funded computing projects. The foundation awarded $36 million in total through its Expeditions in Computing program to support initiatives that have the potential to revolutionize computing and significantly reduce the carbon footprint of computers’ lifecycles.