By Sarah Marquart
The computing sector accounted for an estimated three percent of global CO2 emissions in 2022 — more than Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal combined. Still, compared to the staggering impacts of fossil fuels, that number may seem insignificant. But every emission counts when it comes to combating the climate crisis, and this sector is only expected to grow over the coming decades as the demand for computing increases.
That’s why tech giants like Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Intel are committing to sustainable computing — to curb this potential impact. Joining them in this collective action is Udit Gupta (BS ‘16), assistant professor at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech and member of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University.
Gupta will have the opportunity to confront these challenges directly through projects funded by two grants he received from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) through its Design for Environmental Sustainability in Computing program.
“There is a dire need to think critically about sustainable computing,” Gupta stresses. “Already computing accounts for three percent of worldwide emissions. But the total environmental impact is even broader in terms of energy consumed by data centers and charging mobile phones, [the] water consumed to run data centers and semiconductor fabs, and e-waste of discarded devices.”
Gupta received a $2 million grant to study the environmental impact of edge computing devices — such as smartwatches, tablets, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, sensors, and smartphones — and address their escalating environmental toll. Joining him in the effort are Professor Amit Lal from the Cornell School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Associate Professor Vijay Janapa Reddi of Harvard University, and Associate Professor Josiah Hester and Professor Omer Inan of Georgia Tech.
With the funding, the team plans to develop an end-to-end, open-source framework named Delphi, a sort of toolkit for future designers, engineers, and manufacturers to reference as they create the next generation of edge computing devices. The suite of design tools will emphasize environmental impact, sustainability, and longevity without sacrificing user experience or performance.
To create Delphi, the researchers will collect a groundbreaking dataset documenting the actual emissions and resources associated with the creation of edge devices. Not only will this data help with the development of Delphi, but it will also help establish an Electronic Sustainability Record for edge devices — sort of like the nutrition labels on our food. According to Gupta, this transparency is crucial for both consumers and manufacturers.
“Electronic Sustainability Records are a key way to raise awareness of the environmental impact of devices,” Gupta explains. “Consumers get visibility on the climate impact their products have, empowering them to make sustainability-focused decisions. For manufacturers, the electronics sustainability records enable fine-grained tracking of individual components over the lifetime of devices; this allows us to balance device performance, efficiency, and application quality with sustainability.”
In September 2023, Gupta also received a $300,000 Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award from the NSF to develop cloud infrastructures for designing sustainable electronics. As principal investigator, Gupta hopes to use cloud resources to build a shared community infrastructure and tools to measure the carbon footprint of computing platforms across their lifetimes — from assembly line to daily operation. Future engineers and designers can use these resources to weigh sustainability statistics alongside traditional performance metrics.