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Earth to Chip Industry: Love Your Mother!

Our series on sustainable semiconductor manufacturing underscores the urgent need to act — sooner rather than later on climate change.
Earth to Chip Industry: Love Your Mother!
Earthrise as seen for the first time by humans aboard Apollo 8, December 1968. (Image: NASA)

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By George Leopold

“Little garden planet, oasis in space….” –Joni Mitchell

Can the double-edge sword that is technology rescue an overheated planet? With the failure of most political attempts at addressing climate change, we’re about to find out.

As we have documented in our series of “Dig Deeper” podcast interviews, the global semiconductor industry is at least talking about reducing its hefty contribution to the warming of the planet. It is now time to act.

The push for sustainable chip manufacturing is laudable. But so far as we can make out, the stated goals for reducing greenhouse gases from the production of integrated circuits remain mostly aspirational. True, the industry is coalescing around a Semiconductor Climate Consortium.

The membership list is impressive and growing, as is the consortium’s roadmap for reducing carbon emissions. Key members like Intel are expanding the effort through its own Climate Transition Action Plan. The trick will be putting teeth into emission-reduction goals that extend out in some cases to multiple decades.

The push for sustainable chip manufacturing is laudable. But the stated goals for reducing greenhouse gases from chip production remain mostly aspirational.

That’s not soon enough. What is needed is greater urgency, closer collaboration, full transparency.

Among the best ways to nudge chip makers toward sustainable manufacturing is convincing all sectors up and down the supply chain that there will be a return on sustainability investments. Appealing to the enlightened self-interest of manufacturers and their suppliers has worked well in other technology sectors, most notably open-source software development.

Chip makers and their suppliers must be made to understand that they will pay a cost — hopefully a steep cost — for failing to clean up their act. Green investors have a key role to play here, as industry executives we’ve interviewed have stressed.

The captains of the chip industry and their lobbying arms have thus far said all the right things. They have harmonized and repeated their talking points, empowered their marketing departments, preparing their Power Point presentations while promoting their sustainable manufacturing plans at chip industry conferences.

Those are good first steps. Now they must put all their resources into where their interests — and ours — reside.

More action, fewer summits
A technological solution to our climate peril increasingly appears to be the only option. Political solutions are failing and are reportedly being co-opted by the entrenched fossil fuel industrial complex.

Case in point: As the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP28, prepared to convene, numerous outlets starting with the Centre for Climate Report unearthed this inconvenient truth: Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 president and boss of United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, was looking to hustle fossil fuel deals during the climate summit.

Leaked documents verified with the help of the BBC revealed that the UAE petro boss planned to pursue oil deals with as many as 30 countries during the COP28 summit. As one climate observer noted, Al Jaber’s actions were “breathtakingly hypocritical.”

This new level of cynicism underscores the need for technology innovation in the fight to save our planet. All industries, not just chip makers, must act to reduce carbon emissions.

The wild card here is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC). The foundry giant has been largely opaque about its sustainability roadmap. Perhaps major fab customers like Apple can apply pressure. We note that the industry group SEMI’s Energy Collaborative aimed at boosting access to “low carbon” sources includes Asian giants TSMC and Samsung Electronics.

TSMC remains the wild card in the drive for sustainable chip manufacturing.

The planet needs fewer climate summits full of non-binding declarations and greater concrete steps toward reducing carbon emissions now, not two decades from now.

Doing something to address a warming planet has so far generated lots of discussion and high-profile summits — ultimately, a lot of hot air. What is needed are firm commitments yielding measurable results, namely, rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to slow and eventually reverse the effects of climate change. For the chip industry, that means decarbonization of its operations, greater use of renewable energy resources (as opposed to purchasing carbon credits) and migrating those sustainability measures across supply chains.

The global semiconductor industry can lead. It has innovated in areas like low-power devices. It can lead by reducing its greatest source of greenhouse gases: chip manufacturing.

The world is waiting and watching to see whether chip makers’ aspirational goals can help sustain a livable world.

Technology isn’t the only answer. It’s a tool that can be used by innovators to address our growing climate dilemma. As the saying goes, “If they can put a man on the moon….”

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George Leopold, a frequent contributor to the Ojo-Yoshida Report and the host of the Dig Deeper Sustainability video podcast series, is the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom.

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