Semiconductor Climate Consortium aims to cut chipmaking carbon emissions

Maybe they can use more renewable energy – oh crap, that needs semiconductors too

A newly created semiconductor industry body is attending the COP27 climate conference this week to talk about members’ aims to hit net zero emissions by 2050 – and hopefully clean up the chip industry's act.

The Semiconductor Climate Consortium (SCC) was formed at the start of November and comprises more than 60 founding members, including some of the biggest chip manufacturers such as Intel, Micron, GlobalFoundries, TSMC, Samsung and SK hynix.

Representatives of the SCC will discuss key aspects of the group’s vision, goals and membership at two sessions during COP27 in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, it has confirmed.

According to the SCC, it is the first global group of semiconductor companies focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the value chain. It plans to set near-term and long-term decarbonization targets to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and said that members will pool efforts on technologies and strategies to achieve this.

All members have affirmed support for the Paris Agreement and its goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to 1.5⁰C, but it appears that the SCC has yet to agree on the priorities and best practices its members should follow. The SCC will, however, publicly report on progress annually, as well as the industry’s Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

“While individual companies have taken significant steps to decarbonize, the industry must band together to develop green solutions and drive toward net zero. I encourage every company across the value chain to join the SCC and contribute to this crucial mission,” said Ajit Manocha, president and CEO of SEMI, the global semiconductor industry association. SEMI was instrumental in setting up the new body.

Intel, for example, announced earlier this year that it had committed to reaching net zero for greenhouse gas emissions across its global operations by 2040, with interim milestones set for 2030.

Samsung also disclosed plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 and said it was investing 7 trillion won ($5.01 billion) in its energy efficiency and sustainability efforts.

But this new development probably has more to do with public perception than any sudden conversion to environmentalism by the semiconductor companies.

“The industry needs to be seen to be acting for PR purposes, and it also needs to comply with the latest regulatory requirements relating to ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance],” said Gartner VP for semiconductors and electronics, Richard Gordon.

Gordon warned that there is also a cost to implementing such measures.

“As with all industries, there is a balance to be struck between the costs of these initiatives versus the economic viability of the activity. Inevitably, higher costs mean higher prices, a fall in demand, lower investment and slowing economic growth.” And the industry needs to go further if it is to achieve its net zero goal by 2050, according to a timely report from consultants McKinsey & Company.

The report, “Keeping the semiconductor industry on the path to net zero”, states that the semiconductor companies are investing in new fabrication plants and ramping production to meet the demand for more compute power, and this is leading to increased carbon emissions.

McKinsey acknowledges that some semiconductor manufacturers have set reduction targets, but says that getting the industry to net zero will require more comprehensive action.

The report authors laid out three scenarios: one based on current decarbonization efforts, a more optimistic one where all companies that have announced decarbonization goals deliver on their commitments, and an ambitious one under which chipmakers undertake any actions needed to be on track for the 1.5°C goal by 2030.

Only in the ambitious scenario, where McKinsey estimated that emissions would hit 54 million tons by 2030, will recorded emissions be lower than 2020 levels, it said.

The consultancy suggests some new measures that chip fabrication plants could adopt to cut their emissions. For Scope 1 emissions, this might involve installing gas abatement systems for the process gases used, and replacing nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and tetraflouromethane (CF4) with fluorine (F2) gas, which has no global warming effect.

Fabs could also look into replacing heat transfer fluids with alternatives that have low global warming potential (GWP), and replace their energy supply with clean options, such as hydrogen.

For Scope 2 emissions, semiconductor makers need to reduce their energy consumption per wafer year-on-year, but they can go beyond this by increasing their use of renewable energy.

McKinsey estimates that the industry needs to increase its renewable energy share to a level 1.4 times higher than now, but this will be difficult in some territories, where importing renewable energy or building renewable energy generation may be necessary. However, the semiconductor industry has a long way to go to clean up its act, and it isn’t all about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, laudable as those goals are.

Last year, the Guardian reported that an Intel manufacturing facility in Arizona produced nearly 15,000 tons of waste in the first three months of the year, with about 60 percent of it being hazardous. The fab is also said to have consumed enough fresh water to fill about 1,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

it is estimated to take roughly 38 liters (10 gallons) of water to make a single computer chip. ®

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