Semiconductors have an emission problem

Big Tech has been one of the biggest buyers of clean energy in recent years and one of the biggest advocates for taking the clean energy transition seriously. Silicon Valley knows money talks, and the sector has used its financial clout as leverage to push fossil-fuel phase-out. But there is another side to this story. As the industry seeks to reduce its carbon footprint, the fact remains that the tech industry is currently responsible for between 5 and 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally – and it’s up to Big Tech to come up with the innovative technologies the world needs to reverse our emission trends.

While the workings of the tech industry may at times seem like an ethereal, intangible cloud of ones and zeros, the reality is that even the cloud and the internet itself rely on vast amounts of physical infrastructure, from warehouses full of servers to fiber optic cables that Crossing the sea floor – and running the entire infrastructure costs a lot of energy. Some parts of the tech sector are more energy-hungry than others — cryptocurrencies are notoriously wasteful (Bitcoin alone has released a whopping 200 million tons of carbon dioxide since its debut), the computing power behind artificial intelligence has come under scrutiny, and now semiconductors are under fire for their huge energy demands.

The extremely energy- and resource-intensive manufacturing process of semiconductors and the central role in the manufacture of computer chips, which enable other energy-intensive technical products to function, make them a prime target for climate-conscious finger-wagging. On the other hand, it also makes them a crucial entry point to make the technology sector more energy efficient and reduce the sector’s huge carbon footprint.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that semiconductors were a major talking point at the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP), held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, late last year. As a result of these discussions, 60 COP27 members formed a Semiconductor Climate Consortium (SCC) to consolidate and implement a game plan to make semiconductors more sustainable through approaches. To date, this has included coordination around technological advances in the computer chip supply chain to help reduce emissions, and the stated goal of achieving zero emissions in the sector by 2050.

According to a recent McKinsey report, most of the carbon emissions from semiconductors come from the manufacturing processes inside factories (35%) or in heating/power/cooling equipment (45%), with the rest coming from upstream suppliers. But redesigning the system can not only reduce emissions overall, but also make semiconductors positive for climate change by more than offsetting the environmental impact of their manufacture. “A truly holistic approach will increase sustainability in chip production while deploying these chips in systems that prioritize energy efficiency, both intrinsic in the devices themselves and external to the environment in which they are deployed,” Forbes recently wrote in an article about sustainability semiconductive.

This includes focusing on all aspects of the supply chain, from upstream suppliers to the end consumer. According to Forbes, the semiconductor industry’s carbon footprint has also worsened in recent months due to major supply chain issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and economic sanctions related to the Russian war in Ukraine. When companies rush their products to market, they have to bypass flawed parts of the supply chain and often resort to less environmentally friendly shipping options to get the job done faster.

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One of the main downstream goals to improve the efficient use of chips must be the reuse, repair, resale, refurbishment and remanufacturing of existing devices. Extending the lifecycle of our electronic devices and designing them for sustainability rather than planned obsolescence is half the battle when it comes to improving emissions in the tech sector. The CO2 emissions from e-waste are enormous and increasing. According to researchers at the University of California, Irvine, greenhouse gas emissions from electronic devices and associated electronic waste increased 53 percent between 2014 and 2020, with emissions reaching 580 tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 alone.

By Haley Zaremba for

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