The way in which a telecommunications company operates and deploys its network has an enormous influence on its energy and carbon emission performance.

The challenge

5G will cause an enormous rise in energy consumption and has the potential to be one of the biggest culprits in contributing to adverse environmental impacts through greenhouse gas emissions.

What should happen

Designing energy-efficient communication systems is therefore a critical issue for 5G and beyond. 

Emerging technologies can contribute to reduced power consumption in mobile communication networks, and it is today clear that the telecommunications industry must address CO2 emissions and become more sustainable. 

Actions by the telecommunications industry

The global mobile industry united earlier this year under the industry trade group GSMA to take collaborative action in tackling climate change with the release of the Science-Based Target (SBT) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the telecommunications industry. AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and 27 other mobile operators from around the world jumped on board with SBTs to reduce emissions trajectories for mobile, fixed, and data center operators; curb the risks and effects of climate change; and ultimately help companies reach the ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming.


Huawei is actively promoting the use of renewable energy and brings solar energy to telecommunications sites and data centres.

Huawei’s solutions will promote Digital Transformation and the intelligent evolution across every industry and sector, and at the same time lower the carbon footprint, conserve energy and reduce emissions across the board. It is important that 5G is deployed in an intelligent way, to ensure it consumes as little power as possible. Dynamic, AI-enabled processes to turn base stations off when idle, or to allocate network resources only when required by an application – possibly in a virtual dedicated slice – will be important in helping MNOs meet their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with an industry goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.


In terms of 5G, Nokia said its liquid cooling base station technology helped Finish mobile operator Elisa reduce potential site energy costs and CO2 emissions at its Helsinki site by 30% and 80% respectively. Liquid cooled sites are said to be silent, require zero maintenance, and can be 50% smaller and 30% lighter than standard active air conditioning units. Both Elisa and Nokia have set out environmental targets, with the vendor aiming to decrease emissions from its operations by 41% by 2030 and the operator planning to be carbon neutral at the end of 2020. Nokia has also committed to “recalibrate its existing science-based climate targets in line with the 1.5°C warming scenario,” as backed by the United Nations.


AT&T announced a new commitment to be carbon neutral across its entire global operations by 2035. To get there, the company plans to focus on six targets. By virtualizing network functions the operator says it will eliminate areas of energy-intensive network equipment and in turn rely on low-cost, energy-efficient hardware. It’s transitioning to a low-emissions fleet, optimizing routes, switching to hybrid vehicles, and reducing the overall size with a goal of decarbonizing its fleet. The operator said it will accelerate its energy efficiency and network optimization efforts; expand its efforts to drive sustainable feature film and TV production; support the renewable energy marketplace; and invest in carbon offsets.


Vodafone is targeting 100% renewable energy use by 2023, two years earlier than Microsoft, and aims to halve its carbon footprint over that same timeframe. In the UK, it already generates 8% of its electricity through wind power and recently secured planning permission for its first solar farm, which will provide all the electricity for its data centers. BT has already set itself the goal of becoming a net zero carbon business by 2045. It has now launched a call for UK-based technology “scale-ups” to help the UK meet its target. The Green Tech Innovation Platform, in collaboration with US-based startup platform Plug and Play, aims to uncover new technologies in three main areas:

  • Smart streets: Insights from environmental monitoring and traffic optimization sensors that can be integrated into street furniture such as BT Street Hub units.
  • Smart buildings: “Internet of Things” offerings supporting energy and water management in social housing and other public sector buildings.
  • Remote working: Exploring how 5G-enabled products and services can reduce travel, such as video, augmented reality or virtual reality to carry out remote repair and diagnostics by health and other public sector workers.
  • The second initiative, the UK Electric Fleets Alliance, has been launched together with The Climate Group and aims to support the increased use of electric vehicles. BT has the second-largest commercial fleet in the UK with almost 34,000 vehicles, including more than 28,000 used by Openreach engineers.

Mark Skilton, professor of practice in information systems and management, at Warwick Business School, says: “Technology can enable 5G to own the green revolution because of the nature of the increased speed in data sensors that will create an effective real-time system.

Skilton points out that research from Enzen Global, a smart energy consultancy, has shown smart sensor networks can level up numerous green efficiencies, from detecting water leaks to monitoring pollution levels. “5G will be able to turn off inactive systems or optimise water consumption to provide a better balance of demand and supply,” he says. “Today this simply is not possible without the investment and specialised networks that make wide scale use of the internet of things (IoT) affordable.



MTN’s strategy to reduce our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions is to continually seek opportunities to extract greater efficiencies in from our technical infrastructure, and by replacing inefficient and old products with more efficient solutions. “We also invest in renewable energy sources. We monitor energy consumption on an ongoing basis to identify any problems that may drive sudden increases in energy usage.”

5G and IOT 

“5G support for massive machine-type communications, ultra-low latency and higher throughput will be crucial enablers for smart cities, smart agriculture, better sensing, more intelligent equipment with predictive maintenance. These will lead to significant productivity improvements across all industries, generating real green advantages.” Paul Marshall, chief technology officer and founder of IoT specialist Eseye, goes as far as to predict 5G will be the first carbon-neutral network. “The energy-saving potential of 5G connectivity, coupled with IoT technology, is huge,” he says. “Better-connected devices, armed with data provided to them every second, allows for autonomous operation.

5G is designed to be more energy efficient

“5G equipment is more efficient and could consume only 10% of the power compared to 4G. There is an expectation that 5G networks will have an increase in the number of small cells and the rise of massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antennas. However, in the aggregate, energy consumption should be reduced. Also, the 5G radio protocol has idle and sleep modes that reduce consumption when the network is lightly loaded. And cloud-native means compute capacity can be dynamic, spinning up workloads and capacity only when needed.”

Small cells have lower transmit powers than macro base stations. There will be more base stations, yet they are more unaffected relative to a macro cell and use less energy. So, one offsets the other.”

Video streaming: type of data transmission influences climate compatibility:

Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced considerably, depending on the data transmission technology used. This is shown by initial research findings commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency.

The lowest CO 2 pollution occurs when the HD video is streamed home via a fiber optic connection, with only 2 grams of CO 2 per hour of video streaming for the data center and data transmission. For copper cables (VDSL) it is 4 grams. With a data transfer with UMTS (3 G), however, it is 90 grams of CO 2 per hour. If the data is instead transmitted using 5G transmission technology, only around 5 grams of CO 2 are emitted per hour. The power consumption of the end device is not taken into account in this calculation.

Dirk Messner, President of the Federal Environment Agency: “Good news for fans of film and series: If you stream at home via fiber optics or VDSL, you can do so with a good climate awareness. But the amount of data that surrounds us will grow steadily over the next few years, whether Networked driving, home cinema or video conferences. It is therefore important to find the most climate-friendly transmission routes. Our research shows that we should invest more in the expansion of fiber optic networks. From a climate protection perspective, the new 5G transmission technology is also very promising.”

Factors to be considered:

Data centers

In a study relayed by The Guardian, Swedish researcher Ander Andrae was alarmed by a trend that is only increasing: “We have a tsunami of data approaching. Everything which can be is being digitalized. It is a perfect storm. 5G [the fifth generation of mobile technology] is coming, IP [internet protocol] traffic is much higher than estimated, and all cars and machines, robots and artificial intelligence are being digitalized, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centers.”

A report from RWTH Aachen University, found that by 2025, high-bandwidth 5G networking would drive such a boost in demand for data that the energy consumed by German data centers would increase by 3.8 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, the equivalent of the electricity consumed by the 2.5 million people in Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Dortmund. The data center study was based on a literature search carried out by Prof. Madlener of the Institute for Future Energy Consumer Needs and Behavior (FCN) at RWTH Aachen University.

This thirst for energy will be triggered by new technical possibilities, the study says, including organizations building their own mobile networks, and a surge in people streaming movies. These possibilities will be enabled by small local Edge data centers, and those Edge data centers will demand power. At present, 13 billion kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity are converted into heat in German data centers, the company says, and virtually all of this is released into the environment. The RWTH study found that only 19 percent of data centers use part of their waste heat, usually to heat their own buildings and hot water.

Greenpeace lays out two scenarios for China’s data center market. In the first, in which renewables continue to account for about 23% of renewable energy intake, carbon emissions from the industry will hit about 163 million tons by 2023. In the second, more optimistic vision, renewables grow to make up 30% of energy intake in the next three years. But even if this happens, it will reduce carbon emissions from China’s data centers by only a tenth. In the meantime, global temperatures continue to rise inexorably. Last decade was the hottest on record, according to scientists at NASA.

Environmentally destructive technologies

Digitization is one of the main sources of environmental degradation, and Africa is likely to pay the heaviest price.

Many of the raw materials needed for the production and operation of the various digital devices come from Africa. The production of smartphones, for example, requires the use of metals (more than 40), some of which are found in very limited quantities and whose extraction has a particularly high environmental cost: deforestation, water pollution, mining waste, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. One of the best known cases is that of cobalt, a key metal for the manufacture of lithium batteries, which are found in particular in laptops and smartphones.

Larger batteries, using lithium cobalt oxide chemistry (LCO), are needed in 5G phones because the antenna, used to transmit and receive radio waves, need more power than those in 4G phones. Base station antenna for 5G also need significantly more power, putting pressure on power grids, necessitating the use of energy storage systems, which in China are now being built with cobalt containing lithium-ion batteries.

The cobalt extraction process has been beset with concerns of illegal mining, human rights abuses and corruption. Apple, Google, Tesla and Microsoft are among firms named in a lawsuit seeking damages over deaths and injuries of child miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone provides 60% of the world’s supply, with terrifying environmental and health consequences, not to mention human rights abuses and the geopolitical destabilization that accompanies them. While this may be seen as an extreme case, it masks a more general reality: the digital economy is based on an “extractivism” that is at least as destructive and unsustainable for Africa as “traditional” industries.

Larger batteries, using lithium cobalt oxide chemistry (LCO), are needed in 5G phones because the antenna, used to transmit and receive radio waves, need more power than those in 4G phones.

Renewable Energy:

Critical minerals are vital for renewable energy ( Wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries).

Researchers have warned that mining threats to biodiversity caused by renewable energy production could surpass those averted by climate change mitigation. A University of Queensland study found protected areas, key biodiversity areas and the world’s remaining wilderness would be under growing pressure from mining the minerals required for a clean energy transition.


AI seems destined to play a dual role. On the one hand, it can help reduce the effects of the climate crisis, such as in smart grid design, developing low-emission infrastructure, and modelling climate change predictions. On the other hand, AI is itself a significant emitter of carbon. This message reached the attention of a general audience in the latter half of 2019 when researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst analysed various natural language processing (NLP) training models available online to estimate the energy cost in kilowatts required to train them. Converting this energy consumption in approximate carbon emissions and electricity costs, the authors estimated that the carbon footprint of training a single big language model is equal to around 300,000 kg of carbon dioxide emissions. This is of the order of 125 round-trip flights between New York and Beijing, a quantification that laypersons can visualize.

E Waste: 

Smartphones, laptops, television sets, e-readers, refrigerators, air-conditioners — they’ve all been supremely useful.

The trouble is what happens to them once they are replaced by newer models. The answer: millions of electronic devices end up in the trash heap each year, adding to the already acute problem of electronic waste. Last year alone a staggering 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste was generated globally, which was 21% more than just five years ago, according to a report by the United Nations.

Worse: the amount of discarded products with a battery or plug will reach 74 million tons by the end of the decade, which means that in just 16 years the rate of electronic waste will have doubled.

“This makes e-waste the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fueled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair,” observes the UN-affiliated Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report.

“Unfortunately, consumers will need to replace their current 4G phone with the 5G-compatible one, which means ditching a perfectly working phone,” says Matthew Moreton, managing director at mobile phone comparison site Compare and Recycle. “Fears over e-waste issues among eco-conscious consumers most likely will slow down the adoption of 5G if device buyback programmes are not enforced and there’s no actionable plan for the decommissioned devices beyond recycling centres.”

The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra

Sitra encourages measures that promote the sustainable use of natural resources, slow down climate change, safeguard biodiversity and create economic growth and employment with less environmental impact. The aim should be to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources and climate emissions in order to adapt our societies to the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity. Digitalisation and many technological solutions help with this decoupling, and it is therefore important to promote them.

However, digitalisation and the use of technology are also factors that accelerate climate change and reduce biodiversity and therefore need to be addressed. These include the increasing use of energy and natural resources.

Sitra emphasizes that the latest scientific information on the health, environmental and climate impact of 5G technology should be taken into account when deciding on the 5G network and the frequencies it uses. In the light of the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis, Sitra emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive and multidisciplinary assessment of the latest research data. If the necessary research data is not available, it must be obtained before making a decision.


From the University of New South Wales – A group of researchers, led by a UNSW sustainability scientist, have reviewed existing academic discussions on the link between wealth, economy and associated impacts, reaching a clear conclusion: technology will only get us so far when working towards sustainability—we need far-reaching lifestyle changes and different economic paradigms.“

Lead author Professor Tommy Wiedmann from UNSW Engineering: “The key conclusion from our review is that we cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems—like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution—but that we also have to change our affluent lifestyles and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change.”

Digital Sobriety

Image: Andriyko Podilnyk

The embedded energy costs of communications technologies and voracious digital consumption are actually exacerbating global heating rather than helping prevent it, the recent Shift Project report, Lean ICT, Toward Digital Sobriety, suggests. 

The Shift Project wants companies and governments to adopt “digital sobriety” as a principle. The report recommends a shift from “intemperance to sobriety in our relationship with digital technologies”  – basically the idea that individuals and companies could self-limit their purchase and usage of equipment. But this clearly runs counter to the financial imperatives of the big tech companies and their marketing strategies.

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

The 21st century’s tech addiction is not conducive to green living.

Operators could take inspiration from a 2015 Christmas campaign by Deutsche Telekom, which advised families to turn off their digital devices and enjoy “direct, interpersonal connections.” (Morris Lore in his article “Data tsunami is environmental disaster in the making“)

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