You could argue quite strongly the environment has been significantly low down the list of priorities for governments across the world for decades.

However, perhaps excluding a four-year rebellion by the US driven by former President Donald Trump, a shift among global leaders is taking shape.

Today, nearly all heads of state and leaders of companies big and small emphasise the importance of reducing carbon emissions within their operations, in line with the Paris Agreement signed in December 2015.

UN figures show 189 countries signed the agreement, which involves commitments to lower emissions and collaborate to tackle the impact of climate change.

Among boardrooms, mobile operators and network equipment vendors are certainly not being left behind, taking steps to be at the forefront of efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.

Of course, planning is only the first step. So, what exactly is the industry’s arsenal of capabilities to tackle climate change, where does 5G stand in sustainability goals and how does our industry stack up in this area in comparison to other sectors?

The mobile industry was among the first to prioritise climate action, outlining a Science-Based Target (SBT) for cutting down greenhouse gas emissions in February 2020.

At the time, 29 operator groups committed to the target, which requires them to reduce emissions by at least 45 per cent in the decade to 2030.

One of the main efforts focuses on switching to renewable and low-carbon electricity.

At the time, GSMA director general Mats Granryd expressed belief the ICT sector will form “the backbone” to the future global economy, possessing a “unique role to play” in reaching a net-zero economy.

By this month, 65 per cent of the mobile industry had committed to hitting the SBTs.

In line with another GSMA-led initiative from September 2019, 60 operators accounting for more than two thirds of all global mobile connections, have committed to disclosing their climate footprint to provide transparency for investors and customers.

The UN this week praised the mobile industry for a “critical breakthrough” in its environmental progress, after the GSMA revealed more than a third of operators by revenue had committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Dimitris Mavrakis, senior research director at ABI Research, told Mobile World Live (MWL) the telecoms industry is “quite advanced” in tackling climate change compared to other sectors: “Sustainability is a key topic of discussion, when in other industries it’s just an afterthought, it’s not a core planning point”.

Operator goals
Mobile players have notably been taking consistent action to improve sustainability across their operations.

Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica and Vodafone Group were among 26 big-name companies to join a European Union-led green digital initiative in March, committing to targets around investment, development of sustainable digital technologies and more energy-efficient services.

Vodafone previously pledged to use renewable electricity in its European networks by July, and slashed the deadline for carbon neutrality across its operations, and wider business and supply chain.

Telefonica also accelerated steps towards more sustainable operations, reducing its net zero carbon emissions timeline by 20 years.

Tele2 Group claims to have switched to 100 per cent renewable electricity across its operations. It tipped the move as a stepping stone to becoming the first operator in the Nordics and the Baltics to achieve net-zero emissions in its value chain.

Other operators detailing steps to cut their carbon footprint include Orange, Telstra, AT&T, Verizon and BT.

Equipment vendors
Ericsson joined the SBT initiative in 2016 and reduced its emissions by 48 per cent between 2011 and 2017.

The vendor is targeting net zero emissions from its fleet of vehicles and facilities by 2030, and emissions to be reduced by 35 per cent by 2022, compared to 2016.

Nokia was also among the pioneers in adopting the SBTs, in 2017.

It recently unveiled a goal to halve emissions in its operations and supply chain by 2030. Among its focus was to address efficiency in hardware and software products, and better use and modernisation of resources.

Huawei’s commitment includes reducing carbon emissions 16 per cent by 2025 from 2019 levels and deliver a 2.7-time improvement in energy efficiency for its main products.

In 2020, Samsung revealed it used 100 per cent renewable energy across its sites in the US, China and Europe, and was looking to boost efforts in other nations, including home market South Korea.

5G efficiency
A number of research initiatives, including those separately issued by Telefonica and its O2 UK unit, claim 5G will bring improve energy-efficiency compared to previous generations.

However, in a report published in 2020, GSMA Intelligence emphasised new 5G use cases and mmWave adoption will require more sites and antennas, leading to “the prospect of a more efficient network that could paradoxically result in higher emissions without active intervention”.

GSMA Intelligence suggested implementing on-site innovations including new lithium-ion batteries, rectifiers, liquid cooling and air-conditioning systems.

It also suggested AI-driven software could offer benefits in terms of putting equipment into sleep mode when not in use to prevent unnecessary energy use in the RAN, along with long-term commitments around renewable energy sources.

Ericsson CTO Erik Ekudden concurred in a company report from 2020, stating 5G was “the most energy-aware standard”, as it will allow the mobile system to use “smart sleep modes more effectively” and extend coverage by using lower frequency bands.

Opensignal analysts Francesco Rizzato and Sam Fenwick told MWL the impact of 5G on the industry’s overall greenhouse gas emissions would be shaped by factors including the geographical density of networks and the extent to which mobile data traffic rises.

Mavrakis noted 5G is more efficient in terms of delivering the same amount of data in a “faster, more cost-efficient and energy-efficient way”.

“If we talk about network slicing and all of these fancy features that 5G can offer, then it can actually decrease the carbon footprint of many enterprise applications” through digitalisation and automation.

But Mavrakis also noted operators’ appetite to improve energy efficiency comes with a financial consideration as none “will rip out ageing infrastructure before it is depreciated to replace it with a more efficient one”.

After all is said and done, it appears the mobile industry and the ICT sector are on the right track to achieve the highly ambitious targets in contributing to a more environment-friendly future.

And while some have already set a good example by claiming world or regional firsts, needless to say the topic unites companies, authorities and individuals in the mission to do our bit to resolve one of the most pressing issues on our planet.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.