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Moving to a more sustainable future. What’s happening in telecoms?

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Blog

Sustainability and carbon reduction are now key concerns for our industry. In this blog, we report on how leadership is driving results to deliver a more sustainable future. Despite early challenges, much progress has been made.

Sustainability is now at the top of the agenda for operators

Climate change – an increasingly hot potato for the world at large – is leading a drive for sustainability across every sector. The telecoms industry is has long been aware of these challenges – and a concerted response has begun.

Indeed, the telecoms sector in general recognised the need for leadership to drive efforts towards more sustainable networks and services some years ago. For example, the ITU’s member states adopted Resolution 73 on “ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change” at the World Telecommunication Standardisation Assembly (WTSA-12) in 20121

Industry associations are offering leadership

Since then, the industry has demonstrated further leadership. In 2020, the European Telecommunication Network Operators’ Association2 (ETNO) provided commentary on the “European Green Deal”, which has the stated ambition of making Europe climate neutral by 2050, noting that “Digital technologies are a critical pre-requisite for achieving the EU Green Deal’s sustainability goals across different sectors of the economy and society”.

The ITU continues to point towards a more sustainable future, through its adoption of the “Connect 2030 Agenda3”, which targets “an information society, empowered by the interconnected world, where telecommunications/ICTs enable and accelerate social, economic and environmentally sustainable growth and development for everyone”.

How does this translate into achievable goals?

So, at a high-level, there’s been a great deal of activity. But, to turn this into tangible results, aspirations and goals need to filter down into practice steps. The ITU recognises this, too, identifying a number of targets, including:

  • Target 3.2: By 2023, increase the global e-waste recycling rate to 30%
  • Target 3.3: By 2023, raise the percentage of countries with an e-waste legislation to 50%.
  • Target 3.4: By 2023, net telecommunication/ICT-enabled Greenhouse Gas abatement should have increased by 30% compared to the 2015 baseline

It is these – and other – goals that confront individual operators. The road to true sustainability is paved with a number of key stepping stones, each of which requires action. Carbon reduction affects all activities, but also stands alone as a specific target.

So, there’s work to be done. Operators have to create plans that marry corporate goals with action plans for each of their operating units and businesses, as well as for their different departments. It’s quite a challenge, but the industry is responding. But there is good news for the industry – from which we can all learn.

Identifying sources of carbon consumption – and measuring them

While sustainability impacts the entire business, its supply chains and much more, a good deal of attention is paid to the carbon consumption of networks. After all, despite the focus on virtualisation, physical infrastructure is fundamental to the delivery of network services. A base station remains a physical component that consumes power – just as a data centre does too. As a result, operators are investigating how they can address each of these domains.

One current problem is that new attention has been drawn to the industry, because of the drive to rollout more infrastructure to meet the needs of 5G networks. These require a significantly increased density of base stations, accompanied by the deployment of distributed data processing infrastructure. In other words, more physical components that could consume more power.

The industry is aware of this. The GSMA reports that power consumption typically “constitutes between 20 and 40% of network OPEX4”. This drains operator budgets, but it also has a wider impact: globally, the GSMA also estimates that the telecoms industry consumes 2-3% of global energy. Rising data consumption has fuelled fears that it will also increase fuel consumption.

Fortunately, solutions are at hand which promise to help operators reduce carbon emissions and adopt an overall more sustainable footing for the future. And, operators have also responded through the introduction of metrics to measure progress.

For example, back in 2016, Deutsche Telekom introduce a new KPI “Energy Intensity”, which “shows energy consumption in proportion to the transmitted data volumes5”. This measure has been tracked ever since, giving a reasonable estimate of not just the value at a given time, but of course, progress in reaching new corporate targets.

Results are emerging that demonstrate early successes

Others have adopted similar measures and it’s fair to say that the industry is making good progress. For example, the FT’s recent “Europe’s Climate Leaders6” report features a number of operators in the to-20 – including our parent company, Elisa.

Elisa has achieved carbon reductions of nearly 40% (compare that to the ITU’s goals) during the assessed time period (2014 – 2019), joining companies from manufacturing, financial services and more in the rankings. Elisa has achieved this despite surging data consumption and the launch of 5G.

New technical innovations can drive further success

Technical innovations have been key to this success – including the Intelligent Energy Saver solution, which automatically optimises the power consumption of individual base stations, based on AI-driven analysis and prediction of real user demand. These innovations are now available for the industry, through the Elisa Automate business unit.

Achieving sustainability goals isn’t easy. But, thanks to the efforts of pioneers, such as Elisa, and the leadership of associations such as the ITU, ETNO and others, there’s clear direction and innovations to support efforts. It will take time, but significant progress has already been made – and we can expect some major breakthroughs in the next few years, even while rolling out new 5G services. With 6G already taking shape, it’s essential that this progress is maintained to support a sustainable future for everyone, not just our industry.

If you’d like to discuss this topic with us further, please get in touch!

[1] Green ICT Standards

[2] ETNO Position Paper: public consultation on EU climate ambition for 2030

[3] ITU Activities & Sustainable Development Goals

[4] GSMA Future Networks – Energy Efficiency: An Overview

[5] Energy intensity ESG KPI Deutsche Telekom Group

[6] Europe’s Climate Leaders 2021: interactive listing