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The carbon-belching ICT sector must do better on the environmentThe carbon-belching ICT sector must do better on the environment

Energy-efficient technology is in vogue in the telecom sector, but the ICT sector is forecast to be an even bigger contributor to carbon emissions by 2040.

Iain Morris

September 2, 2022

5 Min Read
The carbon-belching ICT sector must do better on the environment

By early 2023, UK energy bills will be so high that most families will be burning furniture outside their front doors just to stay warm affordably. After a blistering summer, the energy crisis in the UK and other parts of Europe – caused by a cocktail of blinkered government regulation, lockdowns designed to halt the spread of COVID-19 and war in Ukraine – has galvanized the search for efficient, climate-friendly and politically acceptable alternatives to Siberian gas. In the telecom industry, whose operators spend about 5% of their operating expenses on energy, it is a good time to be trotting out the "net zero" targets and showcasing the shit-powered basestation.

Vodafone previously claimed to have one such biogas facility up and running in the UK, but its latest energy-related innovation relies on equally unpleasant-smelling liquid ammonia to power a mobile site in Romania. It's teamed up with GenCell, which specializes in hydrogen and ammonia power, along with a local photovoltaic company called Simtel Team on the off-grid test.

Figure 1: Ericsson radio units that apparently won't wrench your arms out of their sockets. (Source: Ericsson) Ericsson radio units that apparently won't wrench your arms out of their sockets.
(Source: Ericsson)

A less stinky update came this week from Ericsson, eager to parade its latest energy-efficient radio technology. Marketing literature typically features an image of an average-sized, happy-faced technician wearing a hard hat and merrily swinging a radio unit in one hand, like a bag of groceries, just to prove how lightweight it is (see photo above). The release about the boringly named Radio 6646 foregoes this but does claim the unit weighs 60% less than predecessors, giving it a lower carbon footprint.

Designed to do the job of nine single-band radios, it promises a 40% reduction in energy usage, according to Ericsson. Annual savings per site are roughly equal to the cost of charging an electric car 40 times, says the Swedish vendor. According to this website, charging a typical electric car with a 60kWh battery at home costs about £15.10 ($17.47) in the UK. Multiplying that by 40 produces a figure of £604 ($699). Across a 20,000-site network, then, an operator would be looking at annual savings of about £12 million ($14 million).

More greenwashing

As green as they might appear – and nobody wants to buy a radio that is less energy-efficient – these and similar updates are a distraction from some ugly realities about the ICT sector and the environment. In today's smartphone-addicted world, ICT is responsible for around 3% or 4% of all carbon emissions, roughly twice as much as civil aviation. By 2040, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), its contribution will have soared to 14%.

This is the date by when Vodafone, France's Orange and various other large telecom or technology groups claim they will be net zero, an awful soundbite that is supposed to mean you have achieved a balance between what you emit and what you remove through tree-planting and other green-fingered endeavors. Either BCG is badly wrong or some of those virtue-signaling corporations will not meet their commitments.

Even if ICT did away with the need for air travel – a scenario that did not seem all that far-fetched during the pandemic – it would still more than cancel out the emissions saved, according to BCG's outlook. The best remedy would be for people to use their gadgetry less, but that is clearly not going to happen. The average home in a developed country is now a repository of future consumer-electronics landfill, humming at night as dozens of chargers replenish device batteries for the following day's digital workout.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

One problem in all the reporting about environmental efforts is that telcos – themselves responsible for about 1.6% of emissions, according to BCG – have limited control over what their suppliers and customers do. These upstream and downstream activities may account for as much as 90% of telco emissions. And while an operator can refuse to buy equipment from a carbon-belching vendor, how many are going to cut off their customers for being insufficiently green?

In fairness, the big telco groups in the UK and Europe – BT, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone – all publish details of emissions, and their data points to reductions in recent years. But the entire global industry needs better standards for consistent and comparable reporting. In its last annual report, US telco giant AT&T refers to emissions only three times and provides no concrete data, despite saying it plans to be carbon neutral by 2035. Rival operator Verizon is even worse. Its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission discusses emissions only when outlining the risks of "regulatory developments related to climate change."

A push for greater reliance on carbon-friendly renewables might be one positive consequence of the war in Ukraine. In the meantime, rising costs will make energy efficiency as important to the average telco as it is to the average household. Even before recent indications of much steeper price rises than previously envisaged, Vodafone was warning investors that its energy bill would be €300 million ($300 million) higher this year. The purveyors of low-power radios and unconventional foul-smelling fuels could be in high demand.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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