Semiconductors and Environmental Justice
A DISCUSSION OFSustainability for Semiconductors
In “Sustainability for Semiconductors” (Issues, Fall 2022), Elise Harrington and colleagues persuasively argue that the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 offers the United States a unique chance to advance national interests while decoupling the semiconductor industry from supply chain vulnerabilities, public health problems, and environmental hazards. The path the authors suggest involves improving industry sustainability by, among other actions, circularizing supply chains—that is, by designing with a focus on material reuse and regeneration.
But any industrial effort to circularize the supply chain will face an uphill battle without addressing competition policy concerns. Today’s large companies and investors seem to assume it natural to seek illegal monopoly power, regardless of its toxic effects on society. Some companies may claim consolidation as a cost of US technological sovereignty, but consolidation is actually a threat to national security. Achieving a circular supply chain will require innovative policies for competition and coordination of pre-competitive interests across use, repair, reuse, refurbishment, or recycling of semiconductors and destination devices. Securing downstream product interoperability, rights to repair, and waste and recycling requirements would be a promising start.
Further, building a strong and sustainable semiconductor industry should not come at the expense of public and environmental health. Attention to environmental justice must be front and center. The European Commission is advancing a novel approach to regulating economic activities for sustainability through the principle of “do no significant harm.” However, the Commission, as well as Harrington et al., fixates on negotiating quantitative, absolute environmental targets to arbitrate the harm of an industrial activity. Harm and its significance are subjective and contingent on the parties involved (and the stage of the industrial lifecycle). Too often, research, development, and industrial policies end up simply becoming governments doling out permission to harm individuals and communities for the benefit of a few for-profit companies. Silicon Valley, with 23 Superfund sites, the highest concentration in the country, has a lot to answer for on this front.
Finally, the United States should avoid a “race to the bottom” of state and local governments undercutting each other to secure regional technology hubs. Too often, relocation handouts siphon tax dollars from communities and schools to attract corporations that prove quick to loot the public purse and leave to the next doting location. For example, the Mexican American environmental justice movement has noted how major semiconductor industries in New Mexico and Arizona regularly secured state subsidies yet provided few quality jobs and little community reinvestment, burdened communities with environmental wastes, and drained scarce water resources. To center environmental justice in semiconductor sustainability efforts, much can be learned from such highly effective good neighbor agreement efforts. Respecting small and medium-size industries, centering environmental justice, and fairly distributing the benefits of a semiconductor renaissance around the country would be not only good policy but also good politics, as shown in other industrial policy efforts. A sustainable semiconductor industry considering these strategies would be more likely to win political and public support and stand a better chance of genuinely benefiting the nation and its people.
Michael J. Bernstein
Center for Innovation Systems & Policy
AIT Austrian Institute of Technology