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September 15, 2021

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*- Global computing's carbon footprint is bigger than previously estimated -*

The world is more online than ever before, and as the digital economy continues to expand, so does the Internet's carbon footprint.

According to a new study, published Friday in the journal Patterns, information and communications technology, or ICT for short, is responsible for a greater share of greenhouse gas emissions than previously estimated.

When researchers at Lancaster University analyzed earlier attempts to calculate ICT's carbon footprint, they determined scientists had failed to account for the entire life-cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure.

This would include, for example, the emissions produced by makers of ICT components, or the emissions linked with the disposal of ICT products.

Scientists have previously pegged ICT's share of greenhouse gas emissions at between 1.8% and 2.8%. But the latest findings suggest global computing is more likely responsible for between 2.1% and 3.9% of greenhouse gas emissions.

If the latest estimates are accurate, ICT would have a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry, which is responsible for 2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Previously, economists and other researchers have claimed advances in information and communications technologies will lead to efficiency gains across a variety of industry sectors.

However, the authors of the new paper suggest real world data has consistently contradicted such predictions.

"We know that ICT has an ever growing role in society and brings efficiencies to almost every corner of the global economy," study co-author Mike Berners-Lee said in a press release.

"But its relationship to carbon reduction may not be as straightforward as many people assume. Our work tries to shine a bit more light on that important question," said Berners-Lee, director of Small World Consulting at the Lancaster Environment Center.

Researchers suspect increases in efficiency boost demand for many ICT products, a phenomenon called the "rebound effect."

In order to achieve net zero emissions -- a target many experts agree is necessary to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius -- researchers insist policy makers work with the ICT sector to develop concrete emissions reductions plans.

By setting strict global carbon limits, technology companies could continue to roll out energy efficiency improvements -- like quantum-computing data centers -- without the risk of rebound effects.

According to the study's authors, technology companies and ICT organizations shouldn't rely exclusively on renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions, due to competition for limited resources, such as the rare earth metals needed to make solar panels.

"Much more needs to be done by the ICT sector to understand and mitigate its footprint, beyond focusing on a transition to renewables and voluntary carbon reduction targets," said Kelly Widdicks, study co-author and Lancaster University researcher.

"We need a comprehensive evidence base of ICT's environmental impacts as well as mechanisms to ensure the responsible design of technology that is in-line with the Paris Agreement," Widdicks said.

*-- Genetic engineering tech promises to sterilize disease-spreading mosquitoes --*

Caution BannerInspired by improvements in CRISPR-based genetic engineering, scientists have developed a more precise insect sterilization system to curtail, or even eliminate, disease-spreading Aedes aegypti mosquito populations.

The so-called "precision-guided sterile insect technique," or pgSIT, relies on gene alterations that disrupt fertility in males and flight in females. Gene-altered males are released into a problematic population to compete with healthy males.

Scientists described the novel method in a new paper, published Friday in the journal Nature Communications.

"pgSIT is a new scalable genetic control system that uses a CRISPR-based approach to engineer deployable mosquitoes that can suppress populations," corresponding author Omar Akbari said in a press release.

"Males don't transmit diseases so the idea is that as you release more and more sterile males, you can suppress the population without relying on harmful chemicals and insecticides," said Akbari, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California, San Diego.

Unlike "gene drive" methods, which allow gene alterations to spread indiscriminately across a population, pgSIT is precise and self-limiting.

Researchers suggest the gene-altered eggs, which yield sterile males and flightless females, could be quickly deployed in places experiencing dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika outbreaks.

Researchers used both mathematical models and lab experiments to show gene-altered eggs, when released in sufficient quantities, can -- according to the authors -- "compete, and suppress and even eliminate mosquito populations."

"This platform technology could be used in the field, and adapted to many vectors, for controlling wild populations to curtail disease in a safe, confinable and reversible manner," scientists wrote in their paper.

The gene-altered eggs could be produced and then shipped to problem locations, or they could produced on-site.

Scientists estimate successful mitigation would require the deployment of between 100 and 200 pgSIT eggs per Aedes aegypti adult. Once the sterile males emerge, they mate with wild females and drive down populations numbers.

Though tested using Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, scientists suggest their system could be adapted for a variety of mosquito species and other pests.

"This study suggests pgSIT may be an efficient technology for mosquito population control and the first example of one suited for real-world release," researchers wrote.

"Going forward, pgSIT may provide an efficient, safe, scalable and environmentally friendly alternative next-generation technology for wild population control of mosquitoes resulting in wide-scale prevention of human disease transmission," they wrote.