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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Semiconductors Have An Emissions Problem

  • Semiconductors’ extremely energy- and resource-intensive manufacturing process makes them a prime target for climate-conscious finger wagging.
  • Carbon emissions from electronic waste are massive and growing.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from electronic devices and their associated electronic waste increased by 53 percent between 2014 and 2020.

Big Tech has been one of the biggest buyers of clean energy in recent years, and one of the biggest proponents of getting serious about the clean energy transition. Silicon Valley knows that money talks, and the sector has used its financial weight as leverage in the push to phase out fossil fuels. But there’s another side to this story. While the sector is trying to improve their carbon footprint, the fact remains that at present, the tech industry is responsible for between 5 and 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – and it’s up to Big Tech to develop the innovative technologies that the world will need to turn our emissions trends around.

While the workings of the tech industry may seem like an ethereal, intangible cloud of ones and zeros at times, the reality is that even the cloud and the internet itself rely on huge amounts of physical infrastructure, from warehouses full of servers to fiber optic cables crossing the ocean floor – and running all of that infrastructure takes a lot of energy. Some parts of the tech sector are more energy hungry than others – cryptocurrencies are famously wasteful (Bitcoin alone has released a whopping 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide since it debuted), the computing power behind Artificial Intelligence has been scrutinized, and now semiconductors are under fire for their massive energy needs.

Semiconductors’ extremely energy- and resource-intensive manufacturing process and central role in making the computer chips that allow other energy-intensive tech products to function makes them a prime target for climate-conscious finger wagging. On the other hand, it also makes them a crucial point of entry for making the tech sector more energy efficient and lowering the sector’s prodigious carbon footprint. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that semiconductors were a major topic of conversation at the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP), which took place late last year in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. As a result of these talks, 60 COP27 members formed a Semiconductor Climate Consortium (SCC) to solidify and operationalize a game plan for making semiconducting more sustainable through approaches. So far, this has included coordination around technological advances in the computer chip supply chain to help decrease emissions, and a stated goal of reaching zero emissions in the sector by the year 2050. 

According to a recent report from McKinsey, most semiconductor carbon emissions occur in the manufacturing processes within fabs (35%) or in heating/electricity/cooling appliances (45%), with the remainder contributed by upstream suppliers. But not only can redesigning the system reduce emissions overall, it can make semiconductors a net positive for climate change by more than offsetting the environmental impact of their manufacturing. “A truly holistic approach will increase sustainability in chip production while deploying those chips in systems that prioritize energy efficiency, both intrinsically in the devices themselves and extrinsically in the environment in which they are deployed,” Forbes wrote in a recent article on sustainable semiconducting. 

This includes a focus on all aspects of the supply chain, from upstream suppliers to the end user. According to Forbes, the carbon footprint of the semiconducting industry has also been worsened in recent months by the major supply chain snags resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and economic sanctions associated with the Russian war in Ukraine. As companies rush to get their products to market, they have to bypass faulty parts of the supply chain, often turning to less environmentally friendly shipping options to get the job done quicker. 

One of the primary downstream targets for improving the efficient use of chips needs to be the reuse, repair, resale, refurbishment and remanufacturing of existing devices. Extending the life cycle of our electronic devices and designing for sustainability instead of planned obsolescence is half the battle when it comes to improving emissions in the tech sector. Carbon emissions from electronic waste are massive and growing. According to researchers at the University of California, Irvine, greenhouse gas emissions from electronic devices and their associated electronic waste increased by 53 percent between 2014 and 2020, with emissions reaching 580 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 alone.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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