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In search of a global solution to a global problem

Researchers organize sustainability workshop to reduce the scientific carbon footprint

CERN Sustainability logo
Image: CERN

No one can avoid the energy crisis - not even science. Faced with rising cost and possible power shortages, research centres such as CERN in Geneva are already taking action: in addition to power-saving measures such as switching off lights and ringing in the heating season later, accelerators will be switched off two weeks earlier than planned and operations will be shortened by 20% next year.

A growing group of researchers has long been concerned that fundamental research has such a large carbon footprint. In particular, research on fundamental particles using particle accelerators is very power-hungry; often the machines and computer centres consume as much energy as several tens of thousands of households.

That's why scientists have joined forces to develop concepts for making particle research more sustainable. The ideas range from waste heat utilisation and sustainable canteen equipment to sustainability in the data. A sustainability workshop was recently held at CERN (and online) with over 250 registered participants. It was the second of its kind. Valerie Domcke, co-organiser of the first Sustainable-HEP workshop, participated in both.

The CERN theorist is a member of a sustainability working group of the European Organisation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities "allea" , which published a report in spring. It is mainly about academia and how universities and research centres can not only gather knowledge about climate change and research possible solutions, but also throw the lever themselves and change habits.

"There are many problems that affect all scientific disciplines, as well as some very subject-specific problems. There are also big regional differences. It's the same with the possible solutions," summarises Valerie Domcke. One example are business trips, for example to conferences. The pandemic years have shown that online conferences are doable; establishing this and making digital conferences just as valuable as traditional ones is one of the starting points.

However, it’s not as easy as it may seem. For example, it is almost impossible to attend an online conference from some African countries due to the many blackouts at different times of the day. "It's interesting how sustainability has to be approached differently in different countries," says Domcke. "An idea that we think is great in Switzerland may be completely different in India. We have to find a global solution for the global problem as well."

Air travel seems like a very tangible issue where levers can be quickly pulled and change set in motion. However, the CO2 emissions of academic air travel – and air travel in general - are much lower than, for example, those of power production or agriculture. Nevertheless, every flight not taken pays into the climate account and, in the long run, also leads to a change of habit on the part of individual researchers.

In the shadow of the energy crisis, the second workshop dealt not only with the major topic of CO2 emissions, but also more generally with sustainability and inclusion. What was also close to the hearts of many speakers was energy-efficient computing in high-energy physics. Computer centres are also major consumers, and with tricks and optimised software, a lot of computing hours could be saved (more info). At the KIT in Karlsruhe, Germany, hot water cooling is already used in the data centre and waste heat is used to heat the buildings (link).

Conference dinners or lunch in the canteen were also on the action plan of the workshop. Here, habits can be changed by gently changing what’s on offer, for example beef and dairy products, which cause exorbitantly high emissions (link). The speaker is a member of an ecological working group at CERN and has already had many constructive discussions with the canteen operator.

Last but not least, participants also tackled the issue of future facilities and how they can be designed to be more sustainable from the outset. This is a concern that was raised in particular by young researchers and was also discussed intensively in connection with the update of the European Strategy for Particle Physics. If you’re interested what the carbon footprint of a future Higgs factory might look like check this link.

The participants have not found a global solution, but many small and larger levers to achieve results in the short term. "It's a process," says Domcke, and it will continue over the next few years. The participants are currently working on a white paper that summarises the approaches and ideas.

There are also moves at the national level: the young Swiss researchers in particle and accelerator physics are organising a workshop on sustainability together. This will take place from 14-16 June 2023 in Sursee as part of the annual meeting of Swiss particle physicists (CHIPP). The aim is to promote discussions on sustainability between the various players in particle physics, including industry and researchers in accelerator physics. In this way, the group aims to jointly develop ideas and principles to both conduct more sustainable research and to support society with its own research on sustainability issues.

Barbara Warmbein


  • Particle Physics


Swiss Institute of Particle Physics (CHIPP)
c/o Prof. Dr. Ben Kilminster
Department of Physics
Winterthurerstrasse 190
8057 Zürich