Ericsson highlights the telco industry’s green problem

Ericsson has unveiled a new report to promote itself with a green twist, but also highlighting the potential damage new 5G networks could have on the environment.

Like many self-serving politicians, Ericsson is using the green agenda to further it own credibility in the RAN segment, though it has stumbled across what is becoming a very serious issue which has been paid little attention to date. As more telcos integrate sustainability and green elements into the corporate strategies, new networks will be energy guzzlers the likes of which the industry has never seen.

It should not come as a surprise, as you can see from the diagram lifting from Ericsson’s ‘Breaking the Energy Curve’ report.

“The answer is yes,” Ericsson CTO Erik Ekudden writes in the report. “It is possible to break the energy curve, i.e. lowering total mobile network energy consumption from today’s level and meeting the massive traffic growth challenge.

“It is not just a possibility. In fact, we believe it is our responsibility, together with all other ICT industry players. Ericsson estimates the current yearly global energy cost of running mobile networks to be $25 billion. From both cost and carbon footprint perspectives, energy consumption is one of our industry’s biggest challenges.”

The impact of these networks on the environment is already quite apparent but will only become more severe unless more energy efficient solutions are sourced. Not only does higher spectrum usually mean more power, networks are set to become denser in the urban environments and more widespread through the rural ones.

Society’s appetite for data is only increasing, therefore networks will become more powerful and ubiquitous. This is demonstrated in the table below, a measure of the carbon emissions from O2 in the UK.

Carbon emissions
Year tCO2eq
2012 6,696.68
2013 8,432.71
2014 7,448.12
2015 10,840.78
2016 10,269.38
2017 7,699.95
2018 7,159.89

The numbers have been decreasing, partly thanks to more energy efficient solutions and clean technology, though the company will have also been offsetting its carbon footprint through various different schemes. Although it is better than nothing, these initiatives should not be seen as the answer as they simply cover up the damage which is being inflicted. Theoretically, burning down a family home and building one elsewhere offsets the consequence, but does it make up for the original act?

It might be a bit unfair to point the finger at O2 here. Every telco will most likely be the same, while progress is being made. The UK telco recently said it has plans to be carbon neutral by 2025 and has also been writing certain sustainability objectives into contracts with its suppliers.

Like O2, a raft of other telcos have been integrating climate change objectives into the corporate strategy. It is a top down effort which should herald results. Orange is another which has set itself a sustainability challenge, the Engage 2025 Strategy outlines an ambition to be carbon neutral by 2040, while BT said it would like to be carbon neutral by 2045 in its 2019 Sustainability report. The GSMA has pledged to get the industry carbon neutral by 2050.

While it might be easy to dismiss something of these statements as PR posturing, there are technologies emerging to aid such missions.

Ericsson offers multi-standard hardware platforms which can help reduce the physical footprint of a network, while it also offers spectrum sharing services to allow telcos to run 4G and 5G simultaneously on the same spectrum. Deploying the latest radio technologies can offer as much as a 30% reduction on energy consumption, a significant figure when you speak to the telco CTOs about how big their energy bills are.

Of course what is worth bearing in mind is that these networks are becoming increasingly dominated by software not hardware. There are new solutions which can dynamically shift performance of products to aid energy consumption. For example, Ericsson is boating of ‘RAN sleep mode’ features to its network management software to help manage the network more effectively. Viavi is another company which is championing new approaches to managing a network through software.

Paul Gowans, Global Director of Solutions Marketing at Viavi, highlighted to use the team had developed a geo-optimised machine learning based algorithm which scales-up and scales-down the performance of the network depending on demand. For example, the networks powering towns in a city’s commuter belt can be optimised between 9am and 5pm. Certain sites can be powered down as demand decreases during the working hours.

Building and managing networks more effectively will of course be a consideration for every telco, both from a commercial and CSR perspective, but what remains to be seen is whether these initiatives and technologies compensate for the increased impact of future networks. Being carbon neutral is all well and good, but if too much of this objective is attributable to projects to offset the initial impact, does it not undermine the ambition of being more environmentally conscious?

Europe’s ‘circular economy’ strategy could be shake-up for mobile

As part of the new Industrial Strategy set forward by the European Commission, rules designed to combat the throw away culture of today might have a significant impact on the mobile sector.

The European Commission is championing what it is now coining as the ‘circular economy’, a concept designed to challenge the take-make-waste extractive industrial model which fuels so many landfills around the world. On the surface it might sound like political jargon, a sustainability agenda which is designed to attract attention not material change, but there is certainly potential for a jolt to the mobile and smartphone manufacturing segments.

The following extract from the plan sets out a top-down view of the strategy:

At the heart of it [the Circular Economy Action Plan] is a new sustainable product policy framework which will establish sustainability principles for all products, helping to make Europe’s industry more competitive. Priority will be given to high-impact product groups and action will include initiative on the common charger, a circular electronics initiative, sustainability requirements for batteries, and new measures in the textiles sector.

In pursuit of climate change and sustainability goals, attention has to be turned to behaviour as well as technological and industrial efficiency. This is the purpose of the ‘circular economy’, to make more of what is currently available as opposed to simple replacing products on a regular basis.

The Circular Economy Action Plan will attempt to force companies into creating a more environmentally friendly and sustainable supply chain. Part of this will be to identify and measure durability, reusability, reparability, recyclability and the presence of critical raw materials in products and set up an action plan to improve each component.

What this could mean for some companies are higher standards of quality for items which are regularly replaced today. Batteries, consumer electronics, mobile devices could be a few which falls under the umbrella. Few companies will like regulatory change because it leads to disruption within their own business. This is an area which certainly has the potential to do just that.

“This strategy could be an opportunity to completely transform the way European industry operates,” said Davide Sabbadin of the European Environmental Bureau (EBB), a lobby group based out of Brussels.

“Europe needs to be ready to embrace a new industrial revolution with clean, safe and sustainable jobs. A strategy which fails to deliver would be a disaster for the aim of reaching climate neutrality and other commitments made in the European Green Deal.”

For mobile devices and smartphones, this could mean stricter standards. For example, low-end mobile devices and handsets which become redundant in a short period of time could fall foul of the rules. It could mean this segment of the market is effectively killed off as higher specs and more expensive materials are forced on manufacturers, reducing profit margin and the appetite to produce such products.

The impact of these new rules and initiatives remains to be seen. What is worth noting is that many of the manufacturers are making strides forward to improve the sustainability of manufacturing and logistics operations, though whether this falls in-line with the standards championed by the European Commission will decide the scale of disruption.

GSMA boasts of climate change progress

The GSMA has announced 50 telcos around the world have signed-up to an initiative to drive greater transparency through the industry with regard to its contribution to climate change.

Representing more than 66%, 5.2 billion, of the worlds’ mobile connections, the 50 telcos will disclose their climate impacts, energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The initiative will also include the development of an industry-wide plan to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement.

“Today’s announcement marks the start of a collaborative action by the mobile industry to tackle the climate emergency, demonstrating how the private sector can show leadership and responsibility in addressing one of the gravest challenges facing our planet,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA.

“The mobile industry will form the backbone of the future economy and therefore has a unique opportunity to drive change across multiple sectors and in collaboration with our suppliers, investors and customers.”

Although the lobby group is giving itself a proud pat on the back, what is worth noting is that numerous other industries have already made prominent steps forward to addressing climate change. Airlines, for instance, have included a tick-box during the purchasing procedure which allows consumers to make a charitable donation to offset the carbon emissions attributed to their seat on the plane. It’s a step-forward of course, but the telco industry is not the quickest off the mark.

Using the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) framework, the industry will attempt to aid climate change enthusiasts limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Although the deadline date for the Paris Agreement is 2050, there is likely to be a huge amount of regional variance. The ability for companies to meet the deadline will be impacted by the ability to access renewable energy, current network deployments and the geographical nature of their location.

While it might not sound like much, limiting the increase in average temperatures by 2050 to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels instead of 2°C could have a significant impact. 11 million fewer people might be exposed to extreme heat, 61 million fewer people exposed to drought, and 10 million fewer people exposed to the impacts of sea level rise. The SBTi is also claiming this 0.5°C could also halve the number of vertebrate and plant species facing severe range loss by the end of the century.

This is certainly a positive step-forward, and while we suspect many will only be agreeing to the initiative as a PR push rather than a genuine belief in the perseverance of the environment over profits, does it actually matter? If the end goal is achieved, does anyone really care what the drivers of the players were?