Inside the global clean energy transition
Technology / Digitalisation

Friend or foe? The potential climate benefits of 5G

The imperative to act on energy efficiency means decisions about 5G must be based on facts, not fiction.

The imperative to act on energy efficiency means decisions about 5G must be based on facts, not fiction.

By the end of 2020, around $2.7trn will have been spent globally on developing 5G mobile internet connectivity. Europe, which aims to be a net zero emitter by 2050, believes this investment can help achieve its climate goals by saving energy. Yet suspicions about the technology – ranging from its energy saving claims, to its impact on health and privacy – remain rife, with many of the Green mayors appointed in France’s recent local elections including a call for a moratorium on the technology in their manifestos.

Europe’s confidence is based on the ability of 5G to process massive amounts of data in real time with the potential, for example, to improve traffic fluidity and reduce fuel consumption in cities or aid the production and integration of decentralised renewable energies, such as solar and wind. At the same time, power consumption per bit, or piece of information, can be up to 90 per cent lower on 5G (fifth-generation connectivity) than on 4G (fourth-generation), says the European Commission. Lars Dittmann, professor at the Technical University of Denmark, describes the technology as “an enabler to future lower power consumption and a more sustainable ICT ecosystem”.

But there is no getting away from the fact the information and communications technology (ICT) sector as a whole faces a “green challenge”. Estimates show it accounts for 5 to 9 per cent of global electricity consumption and more than 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Most people think technology is at best carbon neutral, but it is an incredible polluter,” says Emily Taylor, Associate Fellow in think tank Chatham House’s International Security programme. She points to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that shows training a single artificial intelligence (AI) model can generate as many carbon emissions as the lifetime of five cars.

Anne Vignot, newly elected Green mayor of Besançon, a city in eastern France, echoes and adds to this concern. “Energy consumption related to digital use continues to progress with an increase of two per cent at a national level,” she says. China, where the 5G rollout is more advanced, “is already observing electricity consumption in its telephone networks three times higher with 5G than with 4G,” she adds.

Yet Joop Hazenberg, European External Affairs Director at GSMA, a trade body representing mobile operators, contends that power consumption rises in the first phase of 5G’s roll out because the technology requires more dense and complex networks. “Once the network is more mature, all energy efficiency features will kick in and energy consumption will be optimised,” he says.

[See also: Why climate change is too important to leave to green politics]

French MEP David Cormand is sceptical more digitalisation will reduce energy use. “Now each person has four to five connected things, if this increases to 50, how will we save energy?” he asks. Experts suggest more than 20 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2025.

The Commission remains bullish on the issue, however. It insists new, more energy efficient ICT providing help to other industrial sectors can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as seven times more than the emissions they produce and, ultimately, cut global emissions by up to 15 per cent. Research from GSMA and the UK-based Carbon Trust found mobile technology enabled reductions globally of around 2,135 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2018, ten times greater than the global carbon footprint of the mobile industry.

Throwaway economy

Cormand, like many others, is also concerned about the wider environmental impact of constantly upgrading from one technology to another, describing it as an “untenable economic model”.

But for Professor Dittmann, sticking to 4G is not an option. “4G was mainly developed to provide more capacity and was never targeting applications like 5G,” he says. Operators will build up a 5G network and keep 4G (and 3G and 2G to some extent) active for many years as they “nicely serve entertainment applications such as Netflix or Youtube”. The 5G network, in contrast, can be used for specific ends, such as making manufacturing processes more secure and efficient.

The best longer term option for a green agenda is to “build and expand 5G as soon as possible”, says Dittmann, insisting the software is designed to last longer and be reconfigurable.

[See also: How celebrities became the biggest peddlars of 5G conspiracy theories]

Big brother society

While advocates see the massive amounts of data 5G can process as a good thing, Cormand sees it is another step towards “surveillance capitalism”, where personal data is big currency for advertisers and others with more sinister ends.

According to Taylor at Chatham House, the optimistic view is that information from connected devices in smart cities will “make things more environmentally friendly” and 5G supporters, like Dittmann, underline how the technology allows networks to be “sliced” to make data private exchanges more secure. But Taylor also highlights a potentially “nightmare scenario” whereby data is used to profile people as social activists and stop them travelling or insurance premiums become based on secretly shared health data. “Municipalities that are not great on human rights could use data to close roads to stop protests or ensure people with similar ideas don’t encounter each other,” she adds.

Radiation risks

Possible health risks from 5G are also at the forefront of many minds even though research suggests the technology poses no greater risk than previous systems. “The risk from 5G is about the same as eating pickled vegetables,” says Taylor. Experts generally agree exposure to electromagnetic waves is lower with 5G than 4G since networks generally use smaller and less powerful antennas, but research is ongoing. Anses, the French food, environment and health agency, will publish research on possible health impacts related to 5G early next year.

[See also: 5G will transform manufacturing – despite coronavirus delays]

Given the potential benefits of 5G, the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of money already spent on developing the technology, society can ill-afford to waste time arguing theoretically. Taylor urges everyone to “take a deep breath and manage where the risks might be”. “Moral panic about new technologies is nothing new,” she adds, highlighting concerns in the nineteenth century about the potentially corrupting influence telephones could have on women.

The best way to focus attention on the facts is to “get everybody involved in the conversation” and look at the actual problems that need solving, says Simon Evans, digital energy leader at Arup, a global engineering and design consultancy. “If the issue is better connectivity, then 5G has its place with a constellation of other technologies.”

Bringing everyone onto the same page, however, will be a herculean task. Cormand admits “5G might be necessary for certain sectors”, but until impact studies including costs, energy consumption and use prove this, he wants a moratorium on its rollout. “Studies may show that by putting 5G antennas on earth we will save the planet, but I doubt it,” he concludes.