The environmental challenge of semiconductor production – EURACTIV.com
The disastrous environmental cost of semiconductor manufacturing, which is becoming increasingly problematic with each new generation of microchips, has been largely overlooked in the European Commission’s semiconductor package.
The Chips Act, introduced earlier this month, is part of a global drive towards digital sovereignty, as the Commission strives to make Europe an independent tech power. However, the proposal did not address how this initiative will reconcile with the EU’s other top priority, the green transition.
“Digital technologies, both when manufactured and used, have their own environmental footprint, including from the release of fluorinated greenhouse gases during manufacture to their high energy consumption for their production and during of their use,” reads the flea law.
However, the legislative proposal only takes into account the environmental impact based on the performance of the final product, i.e. how new generations of chips tend to enable connected devices, power electronics and a more energy-efficient ICT infrastructure.
In contrast, Harvard research across the IT industry indicates that while the operational energy consumption of IT devices has steadily declined in terms of carbon emissions, the carbon footprint of IT systems has continued to increase. due to manufacturing and hardware infrastructure.
“The semiconductor industry is one of the most resource intensive in the world. It is curious that with the Chips Act, the European Commission makes no mention of it,” said Pauline Weil, research assistant at the think tank Bruegel.
A Commission official told EURACTIV that semiconductor manufacturing is covered by EU climate goals and legislation such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and system certification. environmental management and auditing.
Meanwhile, the Electronic Components Manufacturers Association has estimated that the European semiconductor industry has reduced its gaseous emissions per production by 42% between 2010 and 2020 thanks to new abatement technologies, optimization of process gas and less polluting perfluorinated chemicals.
Nevertheless, the Commission’s initiative aims to take EU chip manufacturing to a different level, both in terms of quantity and quality.
Harvard research has shown that the lion’s share of the IT sector’s environmental footprint is produced by semiconductor manufacturing. Additionally, the more sophisticated the chip, the greater the environmental impact on energy intensity, water consumption and waste generation.
The Interuniversity Microelectronics Center (IMEC) noted that research on the overall environmental impact of chips is still lacking, in part due to the growing and ever-changing complexity of the production process, but the overall trend seems clear.
Producing advanced 2nm microchips requires more than twice as much water and three times as much electricity as 28nm ones. Carbon emissions have also more than doubled in the process.
To be globally competitive, the Commission wants to attract the best international players to set up manufacturing facilities in Europe by providing public funding covering up to 100% of investments.
However, by comparing companies’ public disclosures, Bloomberg found that major chipmakers have outperformed traditionally polluting industries such as automotive in terms of carbon footprint and hazardous waste.
In 2020, Greenpeace estimated that major semiconductor maker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) accounted for almost 5% of Taiwan’s total energy consumption, a percentage the NGO expected to increase further with microchips. new generation.
TSCM emitted 15 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2020, nearly doubling its emissions from the previous year. The world’s second largest producer, Samsung, emitted nearly 13 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in the same year.
In contrast, third chipmaker Intel has reduced its carbon footprint by 18% since 2000 and restored 90% water consumption in 2020 despite growing production. Although increasingly based on renewable energies, production remains energy-intensive.
Intel is to open a new factory in Europe, for which it is committed to 100% renewable energy, net positive water use and zero waste to landfill.
However, the Commission’s ambition to set up state-of-the-art manufacturing plants in Europe is already an extremely expensive undertaking, worth tens of billions of euros. High EU environmental standards are likely to increase this cost.
“In addition to caution on the efficiency of public spending, the intention to have manufacturing capabilities in the EU focuses on security of supply with potential trade-offs for the efficiency of public spending and the environmental sustainability,” Bruegel’s Weil added.
When it comes to chip manufacturing, the notion of digital sovereignty might not be immediately reconcilable with Europe’s green agenda. Therefore, the EU executive might have to prioritize between the two.
“The siting of industrial installations can have a negative impact on the environment, but this can be offset by their contribution to the transition towards long-term sustainability,” the Commission spokesperson said.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]