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How Does 5G Meet Net ZERO Commitments?

As COP26 draws to a close and global leaders and policy makers finalise what we all hope will be meaningful decisions on how to address a climate emergency that up to now has been largely ignored, we ask the question of whether the telecoms sector is taking their energy consumption responsibilities seriously, and more specifically how 5G is conducive to meeting our Net Zero commitments.

5G is set to significantly add to the telecoms industry carbon footprint, with the power consumption of 5G base station hardware being between two and four times greater than 4G, and energy demand from network and data centres surging as 5G facilitates greater volumes of data transfer. On top of this and most often discussed is the short range of 5G radio waves compared to 4G and previous network generations. 4G wavelengths have a range of around ten miles while 5G has a range of between 1,000 to 1,500 feet. 5G might be able to shift lots of data, but not very far. This means that your mobile operator will need to install a lot more new equipment to ensure a reliable 5G signal – there will need to be many more cell towers and antennas everywhere. All this additional infrastructure will need to be powered, resulting in a much larger carbon footprint, not to mention higher deployment costs.

Business and industry across the globe is already being asked how it intends to meet climate goals, and here in the UK the Government has said they’ll force firms to set out detailed public plans for how they will hit climate change targets. This does of course sound more than a little hypocritical seeing as governments all around the world including the UK’s have been paying out billions of dollars in subsidies associated with 5G for some years. What a pity they haven’t been so quick to splash the cash on solving the worlds single use plastic catastrophe, reforesting or any of the other initiatives we’re now desperately trying to catch up on having ignored them for decades.

Inevitably (as with the number of delegates from the fossil fuel industries outnumbering those from any countries attending COP26) we’ve seen push back from the industry talking up the green credentials of 5G. A recent report commissioned by Mobile UK, the trade association representing the UK’s mobile operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone outlines measures and recommendations for policy makers to help speed up 5G deployment, proclaiming how it will help cut carbon emissions faster. This is not altogether surprising as these operators have the most to gain from 5G.

The report talks of how 5G will accelerate the IOT industry and facilitate smart industries, smart homes and cities, bringing us drones and sensors connected to 5G networks that can support new low-carbon farming practices that help reduce emissions. Commenting on the report’s recommendations, Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications at Mobile UK said:

“Our report highlights the crucial role that 5G and wider mobile connectivity will have in assisting our efforts to mitigate climate change. What is important is that governments recognise this early and work with industry to enable the rapid deployment of 5G and mobile networks. By doing so we will be in a stronger position to realise our goals more quickly.”

While all the hype around 5G spawning all kinds of wonderful innovation is very exciting, let’s make no mistake that 5G will do absolutely zero in reducing global carbon emissions in the foreseeable future. In fact, going by the time frame it’s taken to deploy reliable 4G the oceans will have inundated Greater London by the time any industries enabled by 5G connectivity have the chance of mitigating the effects of climate change.

The bigger question perhaps is the carbon footprint that 5G will drive. While a world where everything’s connected from your fridge to your toilet roll dispenser may sound fun for some, it will all inevitably demand more energy and more resources, accelerating climate change and further adding to the pressure on our planet’s dwindling resources at the exact point in time when we cannot afford it to.

As our lives become more digital and computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous so does its impact on the environment. While we all watch the devastating effects of climate change on our latest smartphones and devices, not to mention increasingly experience the effects of it, are those of us in telecoms really considering how our own industry impacts the environment?

Written by Timothy Foxx Neal

Tim has worked for Squire Technologies for over four years supporting the sales, marketing and business development teams. As a keen wildlife photographer his mind is often on matters of the environment.

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