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Estimate of the carbon footprint of astronomical research infrastructures


The carbon footprint of astronomical research is an increasingly topical issue with first estimates of research institute and national community footprints having recently been published. As these assessments have typically excluded the contribution of astronomical research infrastructures, we complement these studies by providing an estimate of the contribution of astronomical space missions and ground-based observatories using greenhouse gas emission factors that relates cost and payload mass to carbon footprint. We find that worldwide active astronomical research infrastructures currently have a carbon footprint of 20.3 ± 3.3 MtCO2 equivalent (CO2e) and an annual emission of 1,169 ± 249 ktCO2e yr−1 corresponding to a footprint of 36.6 ± 14.0 tCO2e per year per astronomer. Compared with contributions from other aspects of astronomy research activity, our results suggest that research infrastructures make the single largest contribution to the carbon footprint of an astronomer. We discuss the limitations and uncertainties of our method and explore measures that can bring greenhouse gas emissions from astronomical research infrastructures towards a sustainable level.

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Fig. 1: Carbon intensity versus time since launch or start of operations for space missions and ground-based observatories.
Fig. 2: Distribution of the carbon footprint of astronomical research infrastructures that exist worldwide as derived using the bootstrap method.

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We thank R. Arsenault for the insights that he provided on the carbon footprint estimates of ESO infrastructures and sites. We furthermore thank M. de Naurois, C. Duran, Z. Fan, C.-U. Lee, A. Klotz, K. Kotera, K. Tatematsu and S. O’Toole for having provided data that were useful for this research. In addition, we thank N. Flagey, L. Pagani, G. Song, M. Smith-Spanier and A. Ross Wilson for useful discussions and K. Lockhart and S. Blanco-Cuaresma for their help with ADS. This research has made use of NASA’s Astrophysics Data System Bibliographic Services. In addition, this work has made use of the Python 2D plotting library matplotlib21.

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J.K. gathered the activity data, made the estimates of the emission factors, estimated the carbon footprints and drafted the paper. All authors defined the analysis method and the IRAP carbon footprint attribution method, elaborated on the discussion section and reviewed the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jürgen Knödlseder.

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Nature Astronomy thanks Andrew Wilson, Robin Arsenault and Lewis Ball for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary text, references and Tables 1 and 2.

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Knödlseder, J., Brau-Nogué, S., Coriat, M. et al. Estimate of the carbon footprint of astronomical research infrastructures. Nat Astron 6, 503–513 (2022).

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