Intel this week released an ambitious update to its sustainability goals posted a year ago. In 2022, the company announced a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across its global operations by 2040.
This week’s update goes further by committing to work with Intel’s suppliers to achieve net-zero upstream greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
CEO Pat Gelsinger said Intel researchers are thinking a decade or more into the future on questions of sustainability. “Work is already underway to identify greener chemistries, to improve equipment designs and facility systems and to deliver more energy-efficient products,” he said in a statement.
“Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is one of our industry’s most complicated challenges,” he added. “Intel is championing collection action to achieve more sustainable computing” by its founding membership in the Semiconductor Climate Consortium and founding sponsorship of the Catalize program, a renewable electricity accelerator for the semiconductor supply chain.
At the same time, Gelsinger expressed a tone of caution. “We are proud to lead the semiconductor industry in sustainable manufacturing and innovations in energy efficiency, but we do not underestimate the challenges ahead,” he concluded.
While the 25-page action plan Intel issued is filled with data points, it generally assumes that readers already understand the massive role future semiconductors like GPUs that crunch popular AI training and inference tasks will have in growing the size of data centers used in companies and cloud providers of all sizes. There is already citizen pushback against growth in data centers in some European cities, such as Amsterdam, because of the electricity and water needs of data centers.
Meanwhile, some US states and localities are subsidizing massive data centers to create bitcoin mining centers or to provide AI and HPC compute. Greenpeace recently detailed bitcoin mining operations by Riot Platforms in Texas, saying the company is “leading the polluting Bitcoin boom in Texas.”
While Intel does build data centers, per se, it has an ambitious plan to build chip fabs in the US and elsewhere and is seeking US CHIPS Act funds to support its US efforts. And, the company makes CPUs, accelerators and GPUs that draw energy and produce heat that must be cooled to drive AI and other compute functions inside data centers. Intel recently said it is providing 60,000 of its MAX GPUs to the Aurora supercomputer at Argonne National Labs for a ScienceGPT concept, calling it the “largest GPU deployment we know of.” Like others in the chip industry, Intel promotes its chips along the lines of lessening the electricity required to perform even greater performance than the prior generation.
What the new action plan says
In its 25-page action plan, Intel lays out its 20-year history in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past decade, Intel has seen a tripling in manufacturing output, but has managed to keep its Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions (direct and indirect emissions) under 20%. In 2022, the company recorded 1.54 million metric tons of CO2e emissions, while avoiding emitting 9.78 million metric tons.
Intel’s goal is to reach 100% renewable electricity across operations by 2030 with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
Then, by 2050, Intel wants to meet net zero GHG emissions for upstream sources, including suppliers. That goal includes requesting suppliers set 100% renewable electricity and net-zero targets with supporting roadmaps. These goals will require collective action on industry wide emissions through the Semiconductor Climate Consortium.
Downstream, Intel set 2030 as a goal for reduction the carbon footprint of its reference designs by 30%. And in that year, Intel said it wants server and microprocessor energy efficiency increased by 10x.
In 2023, Intel said it has achieved 95% renewable electricity globally and conserved 12 billion gallons of water. For 2021 and 2022, the company invested $39 million in renewable energy projects, $51 million in electricity efficiency work, $99 million for water conservation and $215 million for pollution prevention equipment. By comparison, Intel had $63 billion in revenues in 2022, down from nearly $80 billion the year before. It currently employs about 132,000 workers.
The action plan notes that Intel supports a consensus approach to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade but admits to facing challenges meeting the Science-Based Targets Initiative because it does not allow companies to account for early action to reduce emissions.
Sustainability can reduce costs
Jack Gold, an industry analyst at J. Gold Associates, said that Intel’s plan to lower emissions in its own operations means potentially lowering the cost of operations, including for electricity used, fewer harmful chemicals, and less pollution. “They gain benefit from these things in lowered costs longer term,” he said.
“All of that said, Intel is certainly trying to do the right thing for the climate by having these plans in place. I’m fairly confident they can achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves where they control their own destiny.”
The bigger concern is for how Intel will affect the downstream carbon footprint. “Reducing emissions in the downstream is harder,” Gold said. “They are producing chips that use less power to operate but many more chips are being deployed in data centers and the cloud and also in a host of products from consumer to industrial. They all require power, and that power is amplified by whatever device the chips are in. Intel doesn’t have direct control over what products their chips go into or how they’re designed, so it’s much harder to control downstream pollution and emissions….I’m not sure as they can control their own destiny for the downstream use of their products, but they will still need to try.”
Gold said it will also be hard to achieve the new goal of upstream sustainability with its supply chain that provides materials and products needed to make chips. In 2022, Intel engaged more than 130 suppliers, according to the action plan on page 12 . He questioned how Intel will arrange and govern incentives to get suppliers on board although Intel gave a glimpse in its action plan, explaining that incentives for suppliers will include a report card on each supplier’s compliance with Intel’s climate-related reporting requests. Suppliers are ranked under public awards for Excellence, Partnership, Inclusion and Continuous Improvement, but the application of those report cards to how suppliers are chosen for contracts is not described in the action plan. Theoretically, a higher ranking could mean better contract terms for suppliers or some manner of preferential treatment.
Intel added it is a founding member of the Semiconductor Climate Consortium, which started in 2022, to focus on collective actions across the chip value chain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Sustainability over time
Intel has been active in corporate responsibility and issued its first report in the 1990s. Gelsinger said in this year’s 116-page Corporate Responsibility Report that part of the inspiration for the company’s dedication to environmental, social and corporate governance came from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore who established Intel’s commitment to environmental sustainability decades ago.
“Our dedication to environmental, social and corporate governance is key to our success as a business,” Gelsinger in the corporate responsibility report.
“Our commitment to sustainability creates value for society, the communities in which we operate, our investors, our customers and other stakeholders,” a spokesman added. “It helps mitigate risks, reduce costs, build brand value, support for our communities and identify new market opportunities.” The action plan provides a “detailed, cohesive and transparent plan to reach our net-zero greenhouse gas goals” which are beneficial to Intel and its stakeholders.