A vertical shock tube at Los Alamos National Laboratory is used for turbulence studies. Sulfur hexafluoride is injected at the top of the 5.3-meter tube and allowed to mix with air. The waste is ejected into the environment through the blue hose at the tube tower’s lower left; in the fiscal year 2021, such emissions made up some 16% of the lab’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The inset shows a snapshot of the mixing after a shock has crossed the gas interface; the darker gas is SF6, and the lighter is air. The intensities yield density values.
Topics: Civilization, Climate Change, Global Warming, Research
Reducing air travel, improving energy efficiency in infrastructure, and installing solar panels are among the obvious actions that individual researchers and their institutions can implement to reduce their carbon footprint. But they can take many other small and large steps, too, from reducing the use of single-use plastics and other consumables and turning off unused instruments to exploiting waste heat and siting computing facilities powered by renewable energy. On a systemic level, measures can encourage behaviors to reduce carbon emissions; for example, valuing in-person invited job talks and remote ones equally could lead to less air travel by scientists.
So far, the steps that scientists are taking to reduce their carbon footprint are largely grassroots, notes Hannah Johnson, a technician in the imaging group at the Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology in Utrecht and a member of Green Labs Netherlands, a volunteer organization that promotes sustainable science practices. The same goes for the time and effort they put in for the cause. One of the challenges, she says, is to get top-down support from institutions, funding agencies, and other national and international scientific bodies.
At some point, governments are likely to make laws that support climate sustainability, says Astrid Eichhorn, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark whose research is in quantum gravity and who is active on the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities committee for climate sustainability. “We are in a situation to be proactive and change in ways that do not compromise the quality of our research or our collaborations,” she says. “We should take that opportunity now and not wait for external regulations.”
Suppose humanity manages to limit emissions worldwide to 300 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). In that case, there is an 83% chance of not exceeding the 1.5 °C temperature rise above preindustrial levels set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to a 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report. That emissions cap translates to a budget of 1.2 tons of CO2e per person annually through 2050. Estimates for the average emissions by researchers across scientific fields are much higher and range widely in part because of differing and incomplete accounting approaches, says Eichhorn. She cites values from 7 to 18 tons a year for European scientists.
Scientists take steps in the lab toward climate sustainability, Toni Feder, Physics Today.