The telecoms industry consumes large amounts of electricity and  places masts, fibre and other infrastructure across the built and rural environment, as well as being the supplier of huge amounts of equipment such as handsets and routers. To put this into context, Van Heddeghem et al calculated that communication networks (mobile, fixed broadband and telephone networks) consumed 1.7% of total global electricity in 2012, and data centres consumed 1.4%. This is increasing as more computing is shifted to the cloud.

On the other hand, the industry also helps save huge amounts of carbon from enabling millions to work from home (see  see ‘Flexible working still a huge opportunity for B2B telcos’), is instrumental in the environmental benefits being delivered by the IoT, and has initiated schemes such as recycling old equipment and standardising charging cables to reduce waste.

The industry’s relationship with environmentalism and climate change activism has therefore always been a complex one. Both mobile and fixed sides of the telecoms business are now highlighting their green credentials. For years it could be argued that this was simply greenwashing of operational efficiency, but as we enter 2020 there has been a shift. Now, green initiatives are taking on a new form – not only do they save money and enhance brand values, but they are also a new market for telecoms firms looking to maintain and build revenue streams both in the consumer and business markets.

GSMA begins new initiative

On the mobile side of the industry, the GSMA has produced a new report in collaboration with the Carbon Trust, that analyses the mobile sector’s potential to help reduce carbon emissions.

‘The Enablement Effect: The impact of mobile communications technologies on carbon emission reductions’ says that mobile technology reduced CO2 by 2,135 million tonnes in 2018, or roughly the total emissions of Russia. The report claims that this means the mobile industry is saving 10 times more carbon than it generates.

The report highlights how these savings were achieved:

  • 39% came from smart living, working and health
  • 30% from smart transport and cities
  • 11% from smart manufacturing
  • 10% from smart buildings
  • 7% from smart energy
  • 3% from smart agriculture.

The growing IoT and M2M sector enabled savings of 1.44 billion MWh, the report says, equivalent to 521 billion litres of fuel, with savings from improved energy efficiency inside buildings and the use of telematics to improve route optimisation and vehicle fuel efficiency being major contributors.

The GSMA is now leading an initiative to encourage more mobile operators to measure their environmental impacts, with the goal of developing a mobile industry climate action roadmap.

“The mobile ecosystem enabled savings of enough electricity and gas last year to power more than 70 million houses for an entire year in the US. Additionally, fuel for all 32.5 million registered cars in the UK to drive for 19 years was saved,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “Today’s study underlines how mobile and smart technologies are powering sustainable economic growth while enabling the avoidance of emissions across multiple industry sectors. These technologies will be crucial to the world reaching its Net Zero targets.”

Omnisperience welcomes this work from the GSMA but cautions that more needs to be done to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. For example, greater amounts of recycling need to be encouraged (see Tokyo prepares for most technologically advanced Olympics in history) and ultimately the consumption and obsolescence (CAO) business model that sustains this part of the industry and encourages the replacement of handsets every 1-3 years, has to be overhauled. This requires the handset industry to consider how it moves to a more sustainable model that enables it to make money without the huge amounts of waste the current model encourages.

While there is certainly huge scope for telecoms services to substitute for travel, society itself needs to support the ability of populations to move around less – not just for work but for education, shopping, health and other services that currently encourage or demand large amounts of travel. This requires a re-examining and redesign of 19th century social norms and business models.

It’s also true there’s a huge and relatively untapped opportunity to reduce emissions as IoT and smart home/smart building technologies increase in scope and scale, with the added benefit that these should make the consumer experience better as well as greener. However, here too we need a change of attitudes and education, not just technology, if this is to deliver on its potential.

Fixed line market is ideally positioned for green opportunity

It’s important to remember that mobile is just one part of the global telecoms industry. Leading players in the fixed line business have been working on this issue for some considerable time. BT, for example, now dedicates an entire section of its annual report to this topic.

In October 2018 it pledged to become a net zero carbon emissions business by 2045, having cut its scope 1 and 2 emissions by 80% since 1996. In 2018-19 it reduced its energy usage by 1.7% and cut CO2 by 8.9%. Between 2009 and 2019 that translated to cumulative energy savings of £298 million. It further plans to cut emissions from transport, decarbonise its estate through IoT technologies, and drive a reduction in emissions through its supply chain (aiming for a 29% reduction by 2030). At the same time, it is working to ensure that the energy it does use comes from renewable sources.

But this is not entirely altruistic. BT also has its eye on the prize. It has long recognised that being more environmentally friendly also makes business sense, with £5.5 billion of its revenues – 23.4% – now coming from products and services that enable its customers to cut their carbon emissions.

While B2C service providers will need to ensure their products and services meet the green demands of their customers. B2B service providers are in pole position to take advantage of the changes business customers will need to make to meet these same demands and ensure their products and services are more environmentally friendly. The drivers are no longer just brand image, activism and consumer demand, but also government mandates. As can be seen from BT, this is not just table stakes, but a huge and emerging sales driver for those service providers that can articulate their products and services in a way that helps business customers meet their own environmental targets.

With the GSMA having thrown down the flag, fixed line providers are challenged to explain how customers can save even more energy by using their services rather than those of their mobile rivals. This means clearly explaining, for example, that mobile networks are more energy intensive than fixed-line networks and that watching video on mobile networks is especially energy-intensive.

Posted by Teresa Cottam

Teresa is the Chief Analyst at Omnisperience and has over 25 years' experience in the telecoms and technology markets. She is an expert on SME and enterprise telecoms, and has considerable vertical market expertise. Her research focus lies in helping B2B telecoms firms become more commercially successful by better understanding and meeting their customers' needs. She is a judge of the GSMA Global Mobile Awards (GloMo's) for customer experience and enterprise innovation, and for the UK Cloud awards. You can follow her on Twitter @teresacottam

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