More than 50 operators recently joined a GSMA-led initiative to combat climate change, agreeing to disclose details about the environmental impact of their businesses as part of a multi-step plan to achieve net zero emissions.

The disclosures will aid the development of a carbon-reduction roadmap for the mobile industry, which operators aim to put into motion in February 2020. The timeline highlights operators’ view of the issue as a top priority, and comes as they increasingly face the effects of extreme weather events, higher temperatures and rising sea levels.

Feeling the heat
Australian operator Telstra spent several years working to build additional resilience into its network, in an effort to reduce the impact of climate-related disruptions to its business. In its 2019 Sustainability Report, it identified higher energy costs stemming from rising temperatures; flood damage; and the potential for more frequent and prolonged network outages due to extreme weather events as material risks.

Indeed, the company faced a prime example of the latter this month, fighting to restore services as wildfires ravaged the states of New South Wales and Queensland.

Such incidents are likely to become more frequent: in its most recent State of the Climate report, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology noted  the country is experiencing “a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season”.

Earlier this year, AT&T asked the US Department of Energy to help it predict the impact of climate change on the company’s network infrastructure, including how projected increases in sea levels will threaten fibre lines, mobile sites and office locations in the coming years. Bloomberg reported the move came on the heels of several hard-hitting natural disasters, which cost AT&T $626 million in 2017 alone.

Charlene Lake, AT&T’s chief sustainability officer, said in June “climate change impacts everyone, financially and physically”, adding “it’s important we know the risks and learn how to adapt”.

Like AT&T, operator US Cellular has felt the effects of extreme weather, with executives noting earlier this year a drop in store traffic caused by heavy flooding in the Midwest contributed to disappointing Q2 results.

What can be done
Citing Ericsson data, the GSMA noted in a statement mobile networks use an estimated 130 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy, around 0.6 per cent of total global electricity consumption. Network operations also generate around 110 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) per year, representing 0.2 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

When mobile device manufacture and usage is factored in, the latter figure rises to around 200MtCO2e, or about 0.4 per cent of all GHG emissions.

Operators around the world are already turning to renewable power sources in an effort to lower these figures and cut energy costs.

For instance, T-Mobile US and Vodafone set goals to purchase 100 per cent of their energy from renewable sources in the coming years, while Verizon and Telefonica are aiming for 50 per cent renewable use in a similar timeframe.

Between 2007 and 2017, Sprint said it reduced its GHG emissions by 48 per cent and electrical use by 42 per cent. It is also working on initiatives to reduce waste along with water and paper use, and boost recycling.

Energy efficiency upgrades are another way operators are looking to cut emissions.

Tele2 and Japan-based NEC are pushing for the development of more efficient network technologies to reduce consumption.

Telstra is using smart electricity meters to help track usage patterns and manage consumption, and turned to LED-based lighting systems at its network sites to use less energy. During its fiscal 2019 (the year to end-June) it said it spent AUD4.7 million ($3.2 million) on energy efficiency and reduction projects, saving 13,747tCO2e and more than 13,500MWh of electricity per year.

By setting ambitious targets in the forthcoming carbon-reduction roadmap, the mobile industry is aiming to supercharge these efforts and do its part to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, with a view to reducing the risks and effects of climate change.

Mats Granryd, GSMA director general, said the mobile industry has a “unique opportunity to drive change across multiple sectors” and demonstrate “how the private sector can show leadership and responsibility in addressing one of the gravest challenges facing 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.