Thursday, 3rd December 2020

Europe’s hidden carbon import: high performance computing

In 2020, we are used to the idea that physical goods imports include a degree of embodied carbon, which varies depending on how and where they were made.

Say you were importing a tonne of steel, for example. If you imported it from China, that production would be associated with 2,148 kg of CO2 on 2010 figures, versus just 1,708 kg for the same material from Germany. And that’s just production – let alone shipping emissions.

So, if a country imported most of its steel from China rather than Germany, for example, it would bear some indirect responsibility for the higher emissions – even though they weren’t created within the country’s own borders. It’s such a thorny problem that the EU is considering a carbon border tax to level the playing field.

But while we can easily conceptualise that carbon when it comes to tangible things like steel, meat or cars, what about when those imports are a little more intangible? What might be the hidden carbon imports that we’re not even thinking about?

High performance, high carbon computing

Do you think about carbon emissions when you boot up Netflix? What about scientists using sophisticated programmes to aid lifesaving drug research – is carbon on their minds? And traders when they play the markets? Even the researchers putting together the hyper-sophisticated models forecasting the effects of climate change will be contributing to the problem even as they do so.

The thing these activities hold in common is their reliance on high performance computing (HPC). HPC is at the heart of our data-rich, computer-driven and connected modern societies. You could say HPC makes the world go round, and demand is only growing.

As home to some of the most advanced economies in the world, Europe accounts for roughly 30% of global HPC demand – yet it only produces about 5% of capacity. So, where is the extra capacity coming from? Mostly from the US and China.

The internet means that a researcher in Sweden can quite easily be running her models using a HPC centre in China without even knowing it. It may not be arriving in Rotterdam or Antwerp packed up in a shipping container, but that’s an import, and it has a carbon cost.

Carbon and computing

Leaving aside the carbon involved in manufacturing the computers, the emissions implications of HPC boil down to electricity consumption. HPC requires a huge amount of power to run the computers, and often a huge amount again to run cooling equipment that prevents the computers from overheating (potentially 30-40% of power demand).

We can dream of a future where that doesn’t matter, because the world has abundant, 100% renewable electricity supplies. Today though, it certainly does matter. In 2017, the average EU 27 carbon intensity of electricity generation was 295.7 gCO2/kWh, while top performer Sweden managed just 9.3 gCO2/kWh owing to its abundant renewable resources.

By contrast, China’s emissions intensity was 623.6 gCO2/kWh the same year – more than double the EU average and more than 67 times Sweden’s. The US fared better, with 439 gCO2/kWh, but still lagged behind the EU considerably.

Though renewables are gaining ground around the world, that gap doesn’t look like it will disappear any time soon. In fact, with its commitment to the Green Deal that will make Europe climate neutral by 2050, the EU has shown that it doesn’t intend to let others catch up on its climate leadership position.

So, by relying on other places to make up the HPC shortfall, Europe is in effect importing extra emissions versus a scenario where it supplies its own capacity.

Homegrown HPC

It doesn’t take HPC to calculate what a better alternative might be: more homegrown European HPC, powered by renewable energy wherever possible. That’s precisely what we provide at Synthesis Analytics with our EDGE 1 and EDGE 2 HPC solutions, manufactured at our facility in Sweden. What’s more, we go a step further on low-carbon HPC by using the waste heat generated by the units to feed into district heating networks – zero-carbon heat that displaces fossil-fuel generation.

Europe has proved itself as a true climate leader, and the proposed carbon border tax shows that policymakers are thinking of European carbon footprints abroad, as well at home. Let’s apply the same rigour and leadership for the hidden imports of the modern economy, too.

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