One of the better things about the global coronavirus crisis has been the positive impact on the environment. From Beijing to Berlin, people have noticed remarkably bluer skies, significantly less smog and hugely reduced noise.  A new study published in the journal ‘Nature Climate Change’ found that daily emissions declined by around 17% between January and early April 2020 compared to 2019 levels.

In the UK, The Guardian’s Oliver Milman wrote: “The skies are clearing of pollution, wildlife is returning to newly clear waters, a host of flights have been scrapped and crude oil is so worthless that the industry would have to pay you to take it off their hands…” The BBC’s Soutik Biswas continued the theme, describing how in India “the skies over its polluted cities quickly turned an azure blue, and the air, unusually fresh…people shared pictures of spotless skies and even Himalayan peaks from cities where the view had been obscured by fog for decades”.

While there’s no doubt that enforced homeworking and lockdown has had incredible and positive impacts on the environment worldwide (see Flexible working still a huge opportunity for B2B telcos), it’s important to remember that working from home relies on connectivity, cloud services and the like. These may be less polluting, and less obviously polluting, than transport services but they are not yet carbon neutral. (see Beyond the greenwashing – getting the green light for data centres)

As Innes Willox, the CEO of the Australian Industry Group, has said though, it’s vital that economic recovery in ‘the new normal’ also incorporates net zero emissions. If homeworking levels are higher after COVID-19 and journeys lower, this is a positive step forward for everyone and will help countries meet their environmental commitments.

These targets loom large. The EU has targeted member states with reducing greenhouse gases by 40% by 2030 (or below 1990 levels), while China has said that at least 20% of its energy will come from low-carbon sources by 2030, with emissions cut per unit of GDP to 60-65% below 2005 levels.

Working from home helps, because it reduces the impact from commuting, but it could help more if connectivity itself was greener.

Telecoms companies are, after all, major consumers of electricity. According to the GSMA, the biggest 10 service providers collectively spend more than USD14 billion per year on electricity. Ericsson meanwhile has estimated the global annual energy cost of running the world’s mobile networks to be about USD25 billion. Nokia thinks that figure is over EUR72 billion and rising because of exponential growth in mobile data consumption. Whichever figure you believe, it’s very big and very bad for both the environment and operators’ bottom lines. For both these reasons, reducing electricity usage has been a target analysed in their annual reports as a key performance indicator for years, along with a schedule to shift to renewable or carbon neutral models.

The ITU and the GSMA took things a step further in February 2020 by announcing a plan to get the entire telecoms supply chain to reduce their net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Under this plan, mobile operators committed to lowering their emissions by at least 45% over the next 10 years and switching to renewable and low-carbon power. The GSMA revealed that 29 of the world’s largest telecom operator groups had already signed up, including AT&T Inc, Bharti Airtel, Deutsche Telekom, NTT, Telefonica, Verizon and Vodafone. Manufacturers also committed to working with their service provider customers to help them achieve these targets.

Technical innovation is key to achieving these goals – power-saving needs to be designed into telecoms at both the network and device levels. In fixed networks most energy consumption occurs at the customer CPE. In mobile networks up to 80% of energy consumption is by base stations, although handsets still represent a significant chunk of power usage.

Manufacturers haven’t been sitting on their hands.

Huawei has been working on intelligent power reduction solutions for 5G for some time. Increasing efficiency at each point of electrical consumption using a range of technologies, including AI, which means its  5G equipment is now 50 times more power efficient than previous generations of technology. At its analyst conference in May 2020 it revealed that by the end of the year its 5G equipment will be 100 times more power efficient than its 4G equipment. It’s also building smart power saving technology into the latest generation of its 5G handsets to tackle the issue at the customer end.

Ericsson makes the point that the telecoms industry has a much greater role to play in carbon reduction beyond getting its own house in order. “[The telecoms sector] has the potential to enable a 15% reduction in other sectors, such as energy, industry and transport”, says Erik Ekudden, Senior VP, CTO and Head of Group Function Technology. In its Breaking the Energy Curve report, the company outlines its own 4-step approach to reducing the impact of mobile technology on the environment. It claims energy savings alone will pay back the cost of replacing old network equipment in less than three years. Features such as Micro Sleep Tx (MSTx) and the Low Energy Scheduler Solution (LESS) can reduce energy consumption in the RAN by a further 15% it says. And operating site infrastructure intelligently – with AI-based intelligent site control solutions – can save a further 15%.

Nokia has also been working with its customers to help them hit their energy reduction targets. It notes that 5G is natively more green than previous generations of mobile technology because of features such as Lean Carrier, which reduce energy consumption by 50-60% compared to 4G. It also advocates modernising BTS’s and sharing resources between radio access technologies with single RAN software. It claims this can reduce base station energy consumption by 43%, with CAPEX recouped in 2 to 3 years. Smart energy software, it says, further reduces energy consumption by 10-20%.

With telecoms firms and their infrastructure partners all working to reduce energy consumption, the gauntlet has been flung down to the three weakest (green) links in the telecoms supply chain – namely:

  • IT companies whose energy-hungry applications suck power out of our handset batteries and make inefficient demands on our networks
  • customers who need to be educated on how to utilise telecoms in a more energy efficient way
  • handset manufacturers who need to minimise the environmental impact across the device’s lifecycle.

Customers may be keen to minimise their environmental impact but often do not understand how their communications and media usage contributes. While watching a film on Netflix is always going to be more energy efficient than driving to a cinema, choosing how to watch media and utilise devices can reduce the impact even more.

For example, streaming video at lower resolutions saves carbon, as does using smaller devices and screens, as well as using WiFi where possible because it is more energy efficient than connecting devices via current mobile network technology. One of the biggest contributions customers can make, however, is by replacing devices less often, since manufacturing accounts for two-thirds of a device’s lifetime environmental impact. And when they do replace a device, they should ensure it gets recycled.

This is a major challenge for manufacturers that have relied on short replacement cycles to sustain growth. The entire industry now depends on customers buying 5G devices so that the environmental and commercial benefits of 5G can be unlocked.

The answer is that handset manufacturers who have focused on features in ever-cleverer phones have to now focus on designing ones that don’t break as easily and can be repaired, upgraded and recycled. Designed-in obsolescence is a conceit that can no longer be sustained.

When phones do reach end-of-life, mobile operators and handset manufacturers need to ensure that everything that can be recycled is recycled and that parts that can’t be are minimised, biodegradable and disposed of safely. Unfortunately, this is an area where the industry is still challenged to do better, with a recent UN report claiming that only 20% of global e-waste is collected and recycled properly. Ultimately, a combination of customer demand, partner pressure and governmental legislation will force the issue. Device manufacturers need to get ahead of that curve and benefit from being part of a greener future with bluer skies before they become the poster boys of bad tech.

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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