Following on from what is likely to have been the most influential COP conference of our lifetime, we have seen some startling pledges. From a commitment to end deforestation to the setting of goals for the UK finance industry to reach net-zero – truly ambitious plans have been put in place to keep global warming below 2 degrees.
Crucially, there has been a real shift towards prioritizing renewable energy and technologies with nations like India aiming to triple renewables by 2030.
But there was an elephant in the room. With engineering barely represented at the conference, the full scale of the challenge was not presented.
While the end products – electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, and more efficient batteries – are undoubtedly big drivers in reducing reliance on fossil fuels, the supply chain for these faces a massive challenge in order to decarbonize.
There is a huge amount of embedded carbon in the manufacture of the chips powering green tech. Take the sheer volume of water required by fabs to manufacture them, or the potential for inefficiencies in the storage and handling of them in terms of the air pressure, temperature and humidity needed at different points in the process. Then there’s the distribution to consider, with significant volumes of products needing to travel from their manufacturing site to customers.
Taking a step back, several of the raw materials needed for chips – such as quartz – are essentially infinite, but increased mining means the potential for dangerous and inequitable working conditions. And at the end of the cycle, mountains of e-waste represent a dead-end of what could be a circular economy of recycling and re-use.
As investment in chip manufacture ramps up in the US and Europe (with The Chips for America Act proposing $52bn alone) and the race for cheaper technology to drive mass adoption accelerates, the carbon footprint of the sector is only set to grow.
But work is being done. A switch to renewable energy for manufacture is happening – Intel recently committed to sourcing 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and TSMC signed 20-year deal to buy all the energy from the offshore wind farm being built in the Taiwan Straight by Danish firm Ørsted.
The key will be a shift to a globally responsible approach the engineering, as outlined by Engineers Without Borders UK in their recent annual report.
The most responsible choice may not be the easiest (or cheapest). For example, swapping the standard gases used in fab manufacture for cleaner alternatives could mean reversing a fab design that has taken 5 years to develop.
The electronics industry is behind some of the most remarkable advances in humanity, and electronics engineers continue to deliver the technology that will help us reach net zero. Difficult questions do not mitigate this achievement. Rather, foregrounding sustainability and ethical practices complete the circle. If you decarbonize the foundation technology, the shift can roll throughout the value chain.
At Engineers Without Borders UK, they have laid out principles for engineers to help make this a reality:
- Responsible. To meet the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. This should be at the heart of engineering.
- Purposeful. To consider all the impacts of engineering, from a project or product’s inception to the end of its life. This should be at a global and local scale, for people and planet.
- Inclusive. To ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.
- Regenerative. To actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.
We are facing the last opportunity to create sustainable and impactful change – and engineers hold a privileged position in securing the future of our planet. But the benefits of renewable technology must outweigh its footprint. The whole sector has to reach a tipping point where globally responsible engineering is the norm – and it must do so with urgency.