You can’t make an omlette without breaking eggs, as the saying goes. And that’s exactly why the idea of the carbon footprint of the Met Office’s new supercomputer being an “embarrassment” is nonsense.
According to an article in today’s TimesOnline (we don’t read the emissions intensive paper version) the new number cruncher will spit out not just weather forecasts, but 14000 tonnes of CO2 a year. By any standard that’s a lot.
Two things must be pointed out. The Times piece has no doubt calculated the computer’s emissions on the assumption that it’s powered by electricity from a coal-fired station. There’s no reason why that should be the case. It’s a hypothetical emissions scenario, rather than the actual carbon emissions of NewsCorp — owner of The Times — of 637 234 tonnes of CO2 last year. That figure, up 2% from 2006, is the equivalent of 45 new Met Office computers.
Second, the Met Office is one of the leading voices in the climate change debate. Its continually improving forecasts — three day predictions are now as good as two day predictions were ten years ago — are vital in our attempts to understand how the climate will impact on wildlife and ourselves in the coming decades. Of course they need a bigger computer: it’s unfair to say the potential carbon footprint of that machine is an embarrassment.
Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is essential, but we need to prioritize where the cuts are made. When it comes to running a machine that can play a vital role in guiding the actions we must take to bring climate change under control, the ends justify the means. The Met Office is doing its bit elsewhere — its Exeter office, for example, has been awarded an “Excellent” BREEAM rating for environmental sustainability.
The outlook might be grim, but at least the new computer will help us understand how grim.