With the increasing occurrence of climate change events, industries globally have had to shift their attention towards their emissions and contributions, and the telecom industry is no different. According to the GSMA’s Mobile Net Zero report, it is estimated that the mobile industry produces around 220 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) per year, representing roughly 0.4% of global carbon emissions. This represents part of the global Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry’s carbon emissions, which amounts to roughly 700 Mt CO2e per year or 1.4% of global carbon emissions.
To promote further work towards a more sustainable future, several steps have been taken by the telecom industry in terms of commitments and agreements.
The telecom industry’s sustainability roadmap
Firstly, with climate disclosure and transparency being a large part of how industries globally move towards a better and greener future, the telecom industry is similarly working towards the same direction. Currently, there are about sixty operators that have disclosed their climate impacts, risks and opportunities to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a not-for-profit charity that runs the global disclosure system.
Secondly, the industry intends to reach net zero emission by 2050 and to do this, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) and Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) collaborated to create a science-based carbon reduction pathway that was released in February 2020. In addition, a comprehensive guide was provided to operators on how to align themselves with the pathway.
Lastly, the industry is working to enhance cooperation and collaboration between companies and industry organizations to align to not only the new pathway, which requires mobile network operators to lower their carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, but also comply with the United Nations Global Compact Business Ambition to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C. These steps look to ultimately evolve the industry towards being more sustainable and enable other industries that rely on the connectivity of mobile operators to do the same.
|Mobile Operator||Carbon Neutral/Net Zero Targets|
|América Móvil||Committed to the science-based target of 1.5°C, which involves lowering emissions by 52% by 2030, as well as net zero by 2050.|
|AT&T||Aims to be carbon neutral by 2035.|
|Bharti Airtel||Aims to reduce operational emissions by 50% and Scope Three greenhouse gas emissions by 42% over the next 10 years.|
|BT||BT recently brought forward its net zero emissions goal to 2030 for its own operations and 2040 for the wider supply chain.|
|Deutsche Telekom||Currently sourcing 100% of their energy from renewables. Aims to be carbon neutral by 2025 and be a net zero company by 2040.|
|MTN||Set targets to achieve 47% reduction in absolute emissions for Scope One, Two and Three by 2030 and committed to achieve net zero emissions by 2040.|
|NTT DOCOMO||Starting in October 2021, DOCOMO’s 5G network will be powered with 100% renewable energy. The operator is committed to carbon neutrality by 2030 and targeting net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.|
|Orange||Targets net zero by 2040 and 50% renewable energy usage by 2025.|
|Telefónica||Achieved 50% reduction in CO2 emissions in 2019, bringing forward its target of net zero emissions in its four main markets to 2030.|
|Telenor||Targets a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from their global operations by 57% by 2030.|
|Verizon||Plans to source or generate renewable energy for half of its electricity usage by 2025 and is committed to carbon neutral by 2035.|
|Vodafone||Carbon neutral by 2030 and net zero global carbon emissions by 2040. Aims to eliminate carbon emissions from its operations in the UK by 2027.|
Meeting net zero targets
As the mobile industry continues to strive towards achieving net zero emissions, it is however crucial to assess the breakdown of the carbon emissions into the three “scopes” of emissions — Scope One, Two and Three — before operators can look to tackle and address them. According to analysis done before the COVID-19 pandemic, by management consulting firm, Oliver Wyman, the total of emissions for nineteen chosen telecom operators was broken down into the three scopes. 4.6% of total emissions were Scope One, while Scope Two and Scope Three emissions amounted to 27.6% and 67.8% of total emissions, respectively. This provides clear indication of the biggest impact area of a telecom’s total emissions coming from Scope Three emissions.
Within Scope Three emissions, the main emissions drivers include upstream delivery of capital goods and services as well as downstream use of telecom services, which largely comprise of electricity consumption to operate telecom equipment. Over the years, telecom operators have acknowledged the need to assume responsibility for their Scope Three emissions by demanding greater transparency from their suppliers, promoting improvements through stronger engagements and integrating these factors into their supplier selection process.
With energy consumption being a large part of the emissions from mobile operators, it is also important to identify areas where energy reduction initiatives will have the most impact. Based on Telefónica’s energy efficiency initiatives, it was discovered that of the total savings achieved 69.0% related to network transformation, 6.2% to cooling, 3.6% to power-saving features, 1.8% to power, 0.8% to lighting and 18.6% to other categories.
Several operators have removed obsolete equipment within their network and made improvements and optimizations to increase network efficiency. Deutsche Telekom, for example, is updating its network infrastructure through Internet Protocol (IP) migration in addition to the removal of unnecessary equipment, while NTT DOCOMO is replacing existing equipment with more energy-efficient equipment. Verizon is shifting towards more energy efficient systems and technologies, while also implementing energy management best practices in its operations, and China Mobile has applied liquid cooling technology to its base stations leading to an energy saving of 35%.
Other initiatives include network sharing agreements, one that Orange is heavily involved in due to the ability to heavily reduce electricity consumption from sharing infrastructure.
Technology can underpin a more sustainable industry
Renewable energy can play a key role in the mobile industry reaching net zero carbon emissions and there are two approaches in which operators can take to accelerate renewable energy adoption. First, operators can purchase electricity through power purchase agreements (PPAs). These are long-term arrangements with developers of renewables projects to sell power to the buyers in future at a fixed price. Significant decline in prices of these PPAs have largely brought them in line with electricity generated by fossil fuels.
Second, the implementation of solar panels at cell sites can provide renewable energy to the sites and replace traditionally used diesel generators that produce high carbon emissions. The solar panels can generate electricity during the day and store them in lithium-ion batteries where they can be drawn from when disruptions occur and also reduce the operator’s electricity bills.
Network efficiency is a core part of operators’ efforts and goals as cost-savings and great economic benefits come from that. But network efficiency also promotes and enhances energy efficiency. With the growing roll-out of 5G networks globally, deployment of new equipment creates an added pressure on the energy consumption for operators. As such, operators do have to strongly consider equipment efficiency in their operations due to the high levels of emissions generated from obsolete, less efficient equipment. To facilitate this, equipment vendors are constantly developing and applying new technologies to their RAN equipment. Huawei’s PowerStar energy saving solution makes use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance traffic management.
Telecom operators embracing a greener future
The COVID-19 pandemic, despite resulting in large numbers of lives lost, did enable business globally to evaluate their reliance on physical infrastructure. This resulted in the acceleration of enterprises and industries digitizing their processes and looking more towards digital services for greater efficiency and sustainability. In addition, business have also increased adoption of digital services and technologies. One might think that digitalization is worse for the climate changing, since it already accounts for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, with digitalization comes about technologies like Internet of Things (IoT) and AI that significantly contribute to the evolution and development of climate change solutions.
For example, AI helps reduce food waste in the food industry by predicting and forecasting consumer demand accurately. IoT sensors can be used to monitor electricity usage, air quality and many other metrics, providing insights into how governments can improve their cities for its citizens. With digitization comes the connectivity necessary for the various technologies to function and thrive in ultimately enabling the reduction in emissions in different industries. This is where the mobile industry can provide the biggest contribution.
Given how the mobile operators can enable reduced emissions in other industries, the growth in digitization globally, however, will be placing more demand on mobile networks and their related ICT equipment. With more applications and processes moving to the cloud, as well as greater IoT adoption among other technologies, it vital for the mobile industry to focus their efforts on energy reduction. The accelerated demand for ICT services will require energy requirements in ICT equipment to be heavily reduced, to enable for sustainable economic development.