The role and responsibilities of networks in sustainability
Levels of harmful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise, owing to an overreliance on fossil fuels, having devastating effects in the form of climate change and natural disasters. Governments, industries and consumers worldwide have a responsibility to reduce these emissions, and to do so without negatively affecting economic growth. An industry that’s rallying behind this need for change is Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the ICT industry must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% between 2020 and 2030 if it is to comply with the Paris Agreement, which has a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Rapidly rising data usage and computer processing means that the data-centre industry has become one of the largest power consumers in the world. Research published in the Science journal in 2020 estimates that data centres account for about 1% of global electricity use. According to the International Energy Agency, much of this growth in usage over the past decade has been offset by greater energy efficiency, such as a shift from power-intensive, on-premises computer servers to more-efficient cloud providers.
Although there’s more efficiency to be implemented in the telecom sector, this won’t be enough to offset the rise of applications based on 5G networks, artificial intelligence and edge computing, as more industrial and enterprise processes are digitized and more devices are connected.
So, where does this leave mobile network operators?
According to Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, the mobile telecom sector isn’t a particularly damaging culprit on a global level, accounting for just 0.4% of carbon emissions worldwide (see chart below).
Source: Our World in Data
But that doesn’t absolve the telecom industry from responsibility, particularly as its energy usage is growing quickly. Acknowledging this, the GSMA said that as of April 2021, operators representing 50% of worldwide mobile connections and 65% of industry revenue were now committed to a new ITU standard, ITU L. 1470, setting a pathway for the ICT industry to net zero emissions.
Although 5G is a foundation for the digital economy, it must also be a green economy. The ICT industry must strive to further lower energy consumption in transmitting, processing and storing ever-rising volumes of information. And here, 5G can be a flag-bearer for sustainability.
Energy consumption for 5G per bit is only 10% of that used by LTE but delivers 30 times more capacity. Because 5G is more energy-efficient, it’s vital for operators to migrate traffic onto 5G networks as quickly as possible. According to network simulations by Huawei, if traffic load increased to 30% over a 5G network, cell site power consumption could drop by 5%. If 5G accounts for half of total network traffic load, power consumption can fall by as much as 18%.
Optimizing operational processes — saving energy, reducing waste or water usage, and practices such as preventative maintenance of equipment — make for a solid business case whilst also contributing to sustainability. There’s strong evidence from a variety of sources to suggest that telecom operators, industries and enterprises that focus on being more sustainable will gain operational benefits, including a sharper focus on use of resources and facilities and increased productivity.
Many mobile network operators have already identified the relationship between 5G and greater network efficiency. Citing this as a major factor in their deployment of 5G, they expect it to yield savings against one of their biggest operational expenditure costs. In the UK, BT has pledged to become a net zero carbon business by 2045 and claims that since November 2020 it has sourced all its electricity from renewable sources. In July 2021, Vodafone announced it aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030, also using only renewable energy sources. France’s Orange and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom aim to complete their carbon reduction programmes by 2040. This would be 10 years ahead of the commitment made by the rest of the sector through the GSMA, which is aiming for net zero carbon by 2050.
Even so, mobile networks must continue to pursue innovation in energy efficiency if they are to meet the carbon-reduction targets set by the ITU and the GSMA. This is particularly significant in the radio access network, which accounts for the bulk of mobile industry emissions. Here, the challenge is considerable based on the number of active components in a 5G network, like massive-MIMO antennas, replacing two or four transmit and receive elements with antenna configurations of 64 or even 128, and using available spectrum to generate the huge capacity upgrades needed to accommodate network demand.
The network solutions ecosystem is responding to this challenge. Huawei, for example, has designed more energy-efficient massive-MIMO technology for 5G networks, as well as deploying multichannel and multiband remote radio units with similar power consumption to older radio frequency modules but with much higher capacity. Software and network intelligence are as important as the physics of radio hardware. Huawei is helping to cut carbon emissions from mobile networks by automatically closing network resources or channels when they’re not being used, whilst ensuring key performance indicators for the network remain stable.
Another way that 5G can support sustainability is as an enabler of carbon reduction. According to a report published in 2019 by the GSMA in collaboration with the Carbon Trust, titled The Enablement Effect, the application of mobile technologies helped reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions — a unit for measuring various greenhouse gas emissions — globally by about 2.135 billion tonnes. The majority of avoided emissions stem from a fall in electricity, gas and fuel consumption. Digital transformation of energy networks and the use of data flows to optimize energy flows make utility networks more intelligent, reliable, efficient, and therefore greener.
The enablement effect is quoted as being about 10 times greater than the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions generated by the mobile sector, defined in the study as the energy to operate networks, the embodied emissions of the networks and the emissions of handsets. In future articles, I’ll look in more detail at how operators are helping to drive this enablement effect.
Telecom networks can contribute to ecological sustainability by reducing carbon emissions and resource consumption, helping improve air or water quality, and monitoring overall ecology. But there’s still much to do. Stay tuned for further blog posts exploring how operators can be more active proponents of green initiatives, and how ICT innovations are contributing to carbon reduction.
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