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8 June 2022

Mobile Operator carbon emissions rose throughout 2021

First run in our sister paper Wireless Watch

Efforts by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to stem rising carbon emissions generated directly or indirectly by their networks have yet to work, as the total rose by 2% in 2021, according to the GSMA in its 2022 Mobile Net Zero Report, the second such document it has produced.

The GSMA has trumpeted this as a success in the face of double-digit growth in data traffic over that year, but that argument will not wash for much longer, given the expectation and commitment for net zero from telcos, in some cases within little more than a few years. Data volumes constantly increase with 5G accelerating that trend and a rise in traffic does not necessarily equate to higher levels of usage in terms of time spent connected to a mobile service.

The more positive statistic from that latest report is that 62% of the mobile industry by revenue has committed to reducing emissions in the next decade, up 50% on the 2020 total. Measured by operator numbers rather than revenue, the increase is 58%, from 31 to 49 over the year, reflecting the fact that the biggest telcos tended to be first to sign up.

There are also significant regional variations, with countries including India, Indonesia, Iran, Vietnam, France, Thailand and Russia having operators that have yet to disclose their climate impact.

The problem in China is not lack of interest or investment in sustainable energy production, where it is a leading player, but in taking the medicine itself until it has become economically fully competitive with major rivals, until which time it will still burn a lot of coal. Indeed, China set a net zero target of 2060 in September 2021, effectively setting a baseline for Asia already 10 years more relaxed than the IPCC wanted. Then at COP26 in Glasgow, UK, during November 2021, China, as well as several other high carbon emitting countries, declined to set any new renewable energy or carbon reduction targets.

This dichotomy between interest and action has been reflected in its hi-tech companies and also operators, including the plan by its largest MNO China Mobile, currently closing in on 1billion mobile subscribers. Its Carbon Neutrality Action Plan announced in July 2021 was big on ideas but small on the timing of its commitments.

Mentions of China are therefore notable for their near-absence in the GSMA report, in fact being confined to one. This was a reference, ironically, to China Mobile and Huawei’s Green 5G project being awarded a GSMA GLOMO award for ‘Best Mobile Innovation for Climate Action’ at MWC22 Barcelona. This was a fine project, some of whose elements we have described before, with features to reduce electricity consumption for equipment cooling. But it exemplifies the point that Chinese companies are at the forefront of energy efficient measures, but not necessarily in reducing consumption themselves.

Nonetheless, the GSMA was able to exhibit considerable progress among MNOs in Europe, North America and Japan, as well as a few countries in Asia-Pacific. The report detailed progress towards targets by specific operators under three headings, the first being a general science target defined as either to prevent average global temperatures rising by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, or by more than 2°C. Clearly operators collectively, responsible for around 1% of global carbon emissions, can do little to meet that science target on their own, never mind individually.

The other two targets are the relevant ones, being the milestones for reaching carbon neutrality and net zero. Those two can easily be confused, carbon neutrality being the point at which net emissions from the company’s own operations have been cut to zero, while net neutrality has to take account of third-party suppliers, important given that overall net zero is a global target.

This distinction can be understood by considering that energy consumption by operators, as by any enterprises, has three components defined by the emissions. The first covers direct emissions resulting from fuel consumption for transportation, chiefly maintenance fleets for MNOs, as well as for diesel power generation as required by remote cell sites beyond reach of national grids.

The second covers indirect emissions but which still result from internal activities, such as cell sites connected to the grid using power generated by fossil fuels upstream. The third category covers emissions associated with third party suppliers or others, where the energy consumption as well as generation occurs offsite.

For MNOs, the second and third categories result in by far the highest emissions. Reaching carbon neutrality can be achieved by balancing internal emissions with offsets. Net zero requires balancing all emissions directly or indirectly caused by a company, including those involved in manufacturing components or providing services.

On this basis, the GSMA has reported a variety of targets by different operators, Deutsche Telekom being among the most ambitious with carbon neutrality set for 2025 and full net zero by 2040. British Telecom and Vodafone are almost on the same page with 2030 and 2040 as targets, while Verizon has set 2035 and 2040. Some operators have set much bigger gaps between these target dates that may reflect their particular energy consumption profile, with Swisscom nominating 2020 for carbon neutrality, but 2050 for net zero.

Some operators have set just one of the targets, with both South Korea’s KDDI and Japan’s NTT Docomo citing 2030 for carbon neutrality but no date for net zero. Globe Telecom is one that has done the opposite, setting just 2050 for net zero. There is a certain arbitrariness to both targets, with the distinction between carbon neutrality and net zero being partly in the eye of the beholder.

To boost energy efficiency and reach towards at least internal carbon neutrality, the mobile industry has increasingly recruited machine learning and virtualization to optimize power use in equipment, centralize network resources and avoid unnecessary heating or air-conditioning the GSMA noted.

At the same time, to balance the equation, operators must transition to renewable electricity, with progress being made as 18% of total electricity consumption was sourced from renewable sources during 2021, up from 14% in 2020.

However, the GSMA has admitted operators in some developing countries especially will be unable to meet targets without help from governments to provide renewable electricity at a competitive price.

As GSMA’s director general Mats Granryd said, “We are proud that the mobile industry continues to align around the 1.5°C decarbonization pathway, even in the face of double-digit growth in demand for mobile services. We have far more to do to achieve our net zero ambitions, but mobile will undeniably play an essential role in helping industries and individuals across the globe reduce their carbon impact.”

Granryd added that remote working, IoT and automation, all had key roles to play in reducing travel, and cutting emissions in other industries.