Does the Semiconductor Industry Really Have a Path to Net Zero?

The Semiconductor Climate Consortium (SCC) is a collaborative effort aimed at significantly curbing the carbon emissions of the semiconductor industry. It aims to align the semi industry’s carbon emissions reduction trajectory with the IPCC’s 1.5°C pathway, which calls for a 43% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2019 levels by 2030, a further 50% reduction by 2040, and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

All of this for an industry where every step of the process is the result of years, if not decades, of research and is finely calibrated to fit current manufacturing capabilities. It’s going to be tough road, in other words, but the SCC thinks there are three areas it can put special emphasis to at least get closer to green targets.

More broadly, the SCC thinks enhancing transparency within the value chain—starting t the top is the first step, followed by accelerating the transition to low-carbon energy, and developing solutions to tackle high GWP process gases.

On a practical level, that third point is by far the trickiest—and with the most at stake. These gases, particularly Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs), possess a global warming potential 100 to 20,000 times greater than CO2. This would require unprecedented investments in research and development to discover alternatives and create efficient abatement technologies.

The transition to low-carbon energy is another moonshot, but the SCC says is vital to tackle as it represents over 80% of value chain emissions.

Currently, the increase in energy efficiency is being overshadowed by heightened consumption, particularly in high manufacturing emissions areas such as Mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. The SCC says this issue demands an accelerated shift to low-carbon energy facilitated by investments in on-site energy production and advocating for quicker grid transitions in regions where semiconductors are predominantly manufactured and utilized.

Addressing the remaining 16% of emissions stemming from material extraction and refining, which require high heat or unique chemical processes, forms another massive challenge. Collaborations with existing and new suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of equipment and materials are pivotal. Moreover, tackling the direct manufacturing emissions, which constitute about 7% of value chain emissions, according to SCC, is crucial, though eliminating these emissions presents a significant challenge given their integration into complex production methodologies.

But what happens if we keep the status quo through sheer technical inability, if nothing else?

The SCC outlines those manufacturing emission scenarios, where current projections put the industry is on track to emit 3.5 gigatons of carbon from 2019 to 2050, overshooting the allocated 1.0 gigaton carbon budget. In the full report, SCC shows that under the International Energy Agency Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), emissions from the industry are expected to stabilize over the next 20-25 years, albeit at 168 MT, a figure substantially above net-zero targets.

This scenario emphasizes that merely meeting policy maker low-carbon energy goals will not suffice, necessitating proactive company actions to augment clean energy adoption and diminish direct manufacturing emissions.

And let’s not forget about all the complex dynamics of increasing manufacturing output, which is essential for supporting global economic growth and facilitating climate change solutions, with the need to curb emissions. Advanced semiconductors, vital for various applications including artificial intelligence, demand higher manufacturing steps, thereby escalating the emissions intensity per production unit.

These SCC and its working groups are at the forefront of sharing mitigation strategies for high GWP gases and promoting low-carbon energy adoption, especially in Asian operations, in a bid to steer the industry towards the 1.5°C pathway, demonstrating a clear roadmap to hold the sector accountable in the pursuit of net-zero ambitions.

But let’s be realistic.

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1 Comment

  1. Net-Zero Emission (NZE) GHGs and Net-Zero Pollution (NZP) are huge challenge in free-market consumer-spending orientated economies compared to central plan scarcity economy. Degree which we succeed applying ingenuity and innovation spirit to achieve NZ goals in more satisfaction fluid economic system, is key ensuring long-term wellbeing and freedoms. Keep economy rolling (circularly?), without emissions and pollutions, it is great goal we can achieve #1!

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