Astronomers create 40% more carbon emissions than the average Australian. Here’s how they can be more environmentally friendly



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Adam Stevens, University of Western Australia and Sabine Bellstedt, University of Western Australia

Astronomers know all too well how precious and unique the environment of our planet is. Yet the size of our carbon footprint might surprise you.

Our study, released today in Nature Astronomy, estimated the field produces 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per year in Australia. With fewer than 700 active researchers nationwide (including PhD students), this translates to 37 tonnes per astronomer per year.




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As a point of reference, the average Australian adult was responsible for 26 tonnes of emissions in 2019, total. That means the job of being an astronomer is 40% more carbon-intensive than the average Australian’s job and home life combined.

While we often defer to governments for climate policy, our global carbon footprint can be dramatically reduced if every industry promotes strategies to reduce their own footprint. For individual industries to make progress, they must first recognise just how much they contribute to the climate emergency.

Where do all the emissions come from?

We found 60% of astronomy’s carbon footprint comes from supercomputing. Astronomers rely on supercomputers to not only process the many terabytes of data they collect from observatories everyday, but also test their theories of how the Universe formed with simulations.

Antennas and a satellite dish in the foreground, with others in the background, in the WA desert.
Antennas of CSIRO’s ASKAP telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia.
CSIRO Science Image

Frequent flying has historically been par for the course for astronomers too, be it for conference attendance or on-site observatory visits all around the world. Prior to COVID-19, six tonnes of annual emissions from flights were attributed to the average astronomer.

An estimated five tonnes of additional emissions per astronomer are produced in powering observatories every year. Astronomical facilities tend to be remote, to escape the bright lights and radio signals from populous areas.

Some, like the Parkes radio telescope and the Anglo-Australian Telescope near Coonabarabran, are connected to the electricity grid, which is predominately powered by fossil fuels.

Others, like the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, need to be powered by generators on site. Solar panels currently provide around 15% of the energy needs at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, but diesel is still used for the bulk of the energy demands.

Finally, the powering of office spaces accounts for three tonnes of emissions per person per year. This contribution is relatively small, but still non-negligible.

They’re doing it better in Germany

Australia has an embarrassing record of per-capita emissions. At almost four times the global average, Australia ranks in the top three OECD countries for the highest per-capita emissions. The problem at large is Australia’s archaic reliance on fossil fuels.

A study at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany found the emissions of the average astronomer there to be less than half that in Australia.

The difference lies in the amount of renewable energy available in Germany versus Australia. The carbon emissions produced for each kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed at the German institute is less than a third pulled from the grid in Australia, on average.

The challenge astronomers in Australia face in reducing their carbon footprint is the same challenge all Australian residents face. For the country to claim any semblance of environmental sustainability, a swift and decisive transition to renewable energy is needed.

Taking emissions reduction into our own hands

A lack of coordinated action at a national level means organisations, individuals, and professions need to take emissions reduction into their own hands.

For astronomers, private arrangements for supercomputing centres, observatories, and universities to purchase dedicated wind and/or solar energy must be a top priority. Astronomers do not control the organisations that make these decisions, but we are not powerless to effect influence.




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The good news is this is already happening. A recent deal made by Swinburne University to procure 100% renewable energy means the OzSTAR supercomputer is now a “green machine”.

CSIRO expects the increasing fraction of on-site renewables at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory has the potential to save 2,000 tonnes of emissions per year from diesel combustion. And most major universities in Australia have released plans to become carbon-neutral this decade.

As COVID-19 halted travel worldwide, meetings have transitioned to virtual platforms. Virtual conferences have a relatively minute carbon footprint, are cheaper, and have the potential to be more inclusive for those who lack the means to travel. Despite its challenges, COVID-19 has taught us we can dramatically reduce our flying. We must commit this lesson to memory.




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And it’s encouraging to see the global community banding together. Last year, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a scientific paper, warning of a global climate emergency.

As astronomers, we have now identified the significant size of our footprint, and where it comes from. Positive change is possible; the challenge simply needs to be tackled head-on.The Conversation

Adam Stevens, Research Fellow in Astrophysics, University of Western Australia and Sabine Bellstedt, Research Associate in Astronomy, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘The size, the grandeur, the peacefulness of being in the dark’: what it’s like to study space at Siding Spring Observatory



Today we hear about some of the fascinating space research underway at Siding Spring Observatory – and how, despite gruelling hours and endless paperwork, astronomers retain their sense of wonder for the night sky.
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Cameron Furlong, The Conversation and Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

How did our galaxy form? How do galaxies evolve over time? Where did the Sun’s lost siblings end up?

Three hours north-east of Parkes lies a remote astronomical research facility, unpolluted by city lights, where researchers are collecting vast amounts of data in an effort to unlock some of the biggest questions about our Universe.

Siding Spring Observatory, or SSO, is one of Australia’s top sites for astronomical research. You’ve probably heard of the Parkes telescope, made famous by the movie The Dish, but SSO is also a key character in Australia’s space research story.

In this episode, astrophysics student and Conversation intern Cameron Furlong goes to SSO to check out the huge Anglo Australian Telescope (AAT), the largest optical telescope in Australia.

Siding Spring Observatory, north east of Parkes.
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And we hear about Huntsman, a new specialised telescope that uses off-the-shelf Canon camera lenses – a bit like those you see sports photographers using at the cricket or the footy – to study very faint regions of space around other galaxies.

Students use telescopes to observe the night sky near Coonabarabran, not far from SSO.
Cameron Furlong

Listen in to hear more about some of the most fascinating space research underway in Australia – and how, despite gruelling hours and endless paperwork, astronomers retain their sense of wonder for the night sky.

“For me, it means remembering how small I am in this enormous Universe. I think it’s very easy to forget, when you go about your daily life,” said Richard McDermid, an ARC Future Fellow and astronomer at Macquarie University.

“It’s nice to get back into it to a dark place and having a clear sky. And then you get to remember all the interesting and fascinating things, the size, the grandeur and the peacefulness of being in the dark.”

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Additional audio

Kindergarten by Unkle Ho, from Elefant Traks.

Lucky Stars by Podington Bear from Free Music Archive.

Slimheart by Blue Dot Sessions from Free Music Archive.

Illumination by Kai Engel from Free Music Archive.

Phase 2 by Xylo-Ziko from Free Music Archive.

Extra Dimensions by Kri Tik from Free Music Archive.

Pure Water by Meydän, from Free Music Archive.

Images

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Cameron Furlong




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The Conversation


Cameron Furlong, Editorial Intern, The Conversation and Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.