A greener future is not necessarily a lower-tech future. On the contrary: policy experts at the International Energy Agency and World Economic Forum see smart, data-driven energy systems as crucial to hitting net zero greenhouse gas emissions. But the chips at the heart of all that clean tech — found in everything from wind turbines to electric vehicles and smart grids — come with a big carbon footprint. From a report: According to Harvard research published in 2020, chip manufacturing, not energy consumption, accounts for most of the carbon output from electronic devices. Take water use: a chip fabrication plant can use tens of thousands of cubic metres a day, with each cubic metre creating over 10 kilogrammes of carbon emissions through transportation and purification. Record growth in chip demand in recent years also means more energy is used by manufacturers. Emissions increase with the size of production plants, meaning the carbon footprint gets larger as companies rush to build out capacity.

The problem is most pronounced in Asia-Pacific, which dominates the world’s semiconductor industry, with regional revenues of $330bn in 2022, more than half the global total. South Korea and Taiwan are home to the most advanced chipmakers and, although both countries are aiming to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, their semiconductor giants currently have carbon footprints to match. For example, in 2020, emissions from Taiwan’s TSMC —
from its own operations (so-called Scope 1) and from the energy it purchased (Scope 2) — were about 10mn tonnes, not far off the levels for Taipei City. South Koreaâ(TM)s Samsung emitted 15.6mn tonnes in 2021.

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