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January 23, 2024
Reducing CO2 emissions is not enough, according to telcos, to tackle their environmental footprint. In the words of Orange's CTO and SVP for Orange Innovation Networks Laurent Leboucher, who is also a board member of the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance: "Environmental impact is not just limited to carbon emissions – use of rare materials, plastics and water footprint all need to be considered, managed and reduced."
These are the findings of a new NGMN publication, "Reducing Environmental Impact: Best Practices and Recommendations," which offers guidance to the mobile telecom industry on managing and reducing its environmental impact.
NGMN raises the issue of water use and its growing importance in the face of mounting water scarcity issues. The UN warns that "water is a finite resource in growing demand," as its statistics show around 2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. As the problem is expected to be made worse by climate change and demographic trends in the coming years, there is an urgency to act.
For the information and communications technologies (ICT) sector, NGMN says the solution includes managing water consumption and water use efficiency – a metric applied in data centers to measure the ratio between water consumption and ICT equipment energy use. The alliance says companies need to assess direct use for water generation, as well as indirect use for electricity generation and ICT equipment manufacturing.
NGMN also advises on how to approach water-related issues other than the amount consumed, including water temperature. Data centers often use water for cooling before releasing it back into the environment as much as 10C warmer. This can cause damage to ecosystems and the environment. The quality of disposed water also varies, according to NGMN, as it can contain various substances used to prevent damage to the cooled equipment.
The alliance says immersion cooling – a technology being piloted by BT, for example – is the way forward, and that data center design should aim for zero water consumption in the long run. Mitigating water problems in data centers is especially important because they are often located in areas with abundant resources, which are also often water-starved.
While minimizing overall freshwater use, companies can also contribute to improvements. NGMN points to Intel Corporation as an example of a company tackling its water footprint. It says Intel has made significant investments in onsite water conservation, forged partnerships with local governments and funded restoration projects as it seeks to reach net positive water by 2030.
In semiconductor manufacturing, meanwhile, "water is used throughout the manufacturing process to remove impurities from silicon wafers, as well as in support systems such as scrubbers and cooling towers, and office buildings." If untreated water is released, it causes harm to rivers, land, crops and wildlife.
While energy use is one of the most frequently discussed topics when it comes to emissions – with good reason given NGMN data shows most energy used in the ICT industry comes from fossil fuels – there are other sources of CO2 emissions as well. One of them is the use of coal to extract metals from oxide ores.
Another problem stems from the use of plastics, which make up a large percentage of structural parts and usually either end up in a landfill or get incinerated at the end of their lifespan to release their chemical energy – and CO2. NGMN says a strategy should be devised to avoid the use of plastics from non-fossil sources, tapping into recycled plastic sources, as well as manufacturing from renewable sources and chem-cycled precursors, meaning monomers obtained from plastic waste.
This is only one of the many problems related to material use in the ICT sector. NGMN notes gold and aluminium in particular are examples of metals with high environmental impact, as well as global warming potential. While selecting materials with lower environmental footprint is important, recycling is the most critical measure to tackle these problems, says the report. As a result, it recommends companies reduce element diversity in equipment.
Current equipment often features many different elements, some of which are rare and finite. Although some of them occur only in minimal amounts, the issue makes recovery difficult and uneconomical. Addressing this issue could help increase the availability of secondary materials. With certain materials found in only a handful of countries, secondary resources can reduce geo-political dependencies.
In the long run, it will be necessary to invent new, less harmful materials – according to NGMN, this is key for climate change mitigation. Technologies like AI and computing, including of the quantum variety, can all play a role.
A lot of sustainability challenges cannot be single-handedly tackled by one company. As a result, NGMN recommends engaging with the value chain and promoting sustainable material choices by buyers. Collaboration, as well as information sharing, across the value chain should aid the transition to a circular economy and minimize the footprint of mobile networks, it reckons.
Other recommendations include focusing on modular design and increasing the lifespan of antennas, partly through the decoupling of active and passive antennas.
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