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Intel sponsors report on tech's role in decarbonisation and the irony isn't lost on us

Making computer components is a dirty business

Intel has sponsored a report by nonprofit Resilience First highlighting the role of tech in efforts to reach net-zero carbon emission goals – though Chipzilla's own environmental impact can't be downplayed.

"Intel is pleased to team up with Resilience First to help create this important white paper on decarbonisation and the role of technology," said Adrian Criddle, Intel EMEA veep, in his foreword. "We see technology as being an essential component in helping achieve net-zero carbon emissions across multiple sectors."

Making chips, however, is a dirty business, with a 2002 study having concluded that a 2g semiconductor chip required 1.6kg of secondary fossil fuels and 72g of chemical inputs to produce.

Intel's campus in Leixlip, Ireland, represents just one of the company's chip fabrication facilities, yet generated 14 metric tonnes of volatile organic compounds, 1.21 tonnes of hazardous air pollutants, 13 tonnes of oxides of nitrogen, and 22 tonnes of carbon monoxide in the last quarter alone.

The facility also used a whopping 1,798,808 cubic metres of fresh water over the same period (though Intel's efforts in water reuse and conservation give it cause to claim a 2,558,348 cubic metre saving over the previous year) and generated 6,439 metric tonnes of hazardous waste – but, it is keen to point out, none of that waste went to landfill.

The energy use of the Leixlip plant is also impressive. The facility drew 275GWh over the last quarter, enough to power nearly 60,000 of the area's homes based on data from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI). Intel has, at least, been purchasing 100 per cent renewable electricity for the site since 2017, though the figure includes contributions from non-renewable sources including natural gas and fuel oil.

All told, the facility was responsible for 453,769 metric tons of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) global warming gas (GWG) emissions last year – and that's just one of Intel's smaller facilities. Intel's considerably larger fab in Dalia, China, emitted nearly 1.3 million tons over the same period – and the company has plants in the US, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Israel too, to say nothing of the environmental impact from mining operations carried out to obtain the necessary raw materials.

RISE strategy gives Intel a 2030 target

In Intel's defence, the company said it is working towards a number of environmental goals under what it calls the "RISE Strategy" to create "a more responsible, inclusive, and sustainable world, enabled through technology and our collective actions" – of which its sponsorship of the Resilience First report is a part.

Under the strategy, Intel aims for net-positive water use, a goal it is already 90 per cent the way to achieving, 100 per cent renewable power use, zero total waste to landfill, and absolute carbon emission reductions by 2030. It has a way to go on some fronts, however: Intel has seen its total waste generation more than double between 2016 and 2020.

The Resilience First report wasn't focused on the semiconductor industry's environmental impact, but rather how the world could meet net-zero carbon emission targets by 2050. In conclusion, the report warned that the goal is achievable only through "a combination of technology, innovation, and behavioural changes."

Technology, the report claimed, will be required to assist industry decarbonisation efforts by improving its adaptability, shifting more usage to renewable energy sources, boosting the energy efficiency of everything from manufacturing to transport, and removing existing carbon from the atmosphere.

The speed of development needs to increase, the report advised, and governments need to stop sitting on their hands and actually begin deploying the technologies we already have – with particular criticism levied at those waiting for future innovations instead of adopting a more practical "learn-by-doing" approach.

MoD, Network Rail chime in

The report called upon a number of industries to supply comment, including the UK's Ministry of Defence. "While some may not think it is relevant to defence, climate change will impact on world stability and geopolitical relationships," claimed Lieutenant General Richard Nugee in his submission. "As a global leader, the UK should be concerned and act to increase stability and peace as well as reduce its own emissions to a minimum, without damaging its ability to fulfil its purpose.

"The challenge that defence faces is not inconsiderable. The Ministry of Defence's Scope 1 and 2 emissions – mostly from military equipment and purchased energy respectively – represent half of central government's total. So, it is completely clear that if the MoD does not achieve net zero, the UK Government cannot either, which is clearly unacceptable."

"Although rail is already one of the lowest-carbon and greenest ways to travel (contributing 1.4 per cent to total UK transport emissions), it is vital that we go further to minimise our use of fossil fuels and become an industry that is powered by low-carbon energy to help tackle the global climate crisis," added Network Rail's Jo Lewington in a submission to the transportation section of the report.

"We are working with the wider rail industry to achieve net zero-emissions in line with Government and devolved nations targets. We have set our science-based targets for emissions reductions by the end of each control period across all areas of our operations and we are working closely with our supply chain partners to bring them on this journey with us."

"There are tangible and concrete steps that industry leaders can take today to reduce emissions and build a more resilient way of working," concluded Seth Schultz, chief executive at Resilience First partner The Resilience Shift. "We cannot place our hopes on future solutions, we need to start building those solutions with the tech and brain power available to us right now."

The full report is available to download here [PDF]. ®

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