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What you need to know about the environmental impacts of the 5G revolution

Data is the oil of the 21st century is something we hear quite often and the analogy is pretty accurate. We constantly collect data, even without noticing. When you check the news on your phone on your way to work, upload a photo of your dog on Facebook or binge-watch your favourite series on Netflix you contribute to a phenomenon that experts coined data economy.

Globally we generate around 33 Zettabytes of data or one trillion gigabytes. To put it into perspective it roughly equals the storage capacity of 250 billion DVDs. However, by 2025, this number will skyrocket to 175 Zettabytes.

That enormous amount of data will only exacerbate the already pressing challenges on big tech companies: how to reduce the energy consumption of their data centres at a time when global demand for data is growing at an unprecedented rate.

And here comes 5G into the picture

There is a big chance you already heard about the superfast 5G or fifth-generation mobile internet service transforming the Internet as we know it. In a nutshell, it will enable faster data download and upload speed. To download a 2 hours movie on 4G takes about six minutes, while on 5G you can start watching your movie only in a few seconds.

But beyond speed, a 5G world will also bring an increased number of wireless devices, smart appliances, autonomous vehicles, robots, sensors and other machines that can communicate with each other without human involvement. It will also have 1,000 times more capacity because it is expanding into new frequencies of the spectrum which will make wireless Internet possible everywhere.

In general, we can say that 5G will offer a more comfortable and secure background for our continuous data use. Since it’s a relatively new technology, its long-term impacts on the environment are unknown, however, experts already started to carry out impact assessments weighing the pros and cons of the 5G service.

Let’s start with the good news

5G technology has a big potential to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. On the behalf of mobile phone operator Swisscom, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich and Empa has analysed the effects of the 5G network on greenhouse gas emissions concluding that by 2030 5G should cause around 85 per cent fewer emissions per unit of data transported than today’s mobile phone network.

This is not counting the emission reductions caused indirectly by the expansion of 5G such as smart grids, which enables better integration of intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar into the grid, new applications in agriculture with more targeted use of fertilizers and pesticides, or reduced commuter traffic as a result of faster and more efficient virtual coordination.

In a smart ecosystem where devices communicate with each other non-stop energy consumption is automatically optimised, which translates to fewer greenhouse gases on a larger scale. According to the aforementioned study, the Internet of things (IoT) which comes with the expansion of 5G will offer a savings potential of up to 15 per cent by 2030.

By the middle of the century, the United Nations forecasts that 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. Local governments must shift towards a smart city model, which require the uninterrupted data transmission between devices such as sensors, cameras and smartphones. The connectivity and speed of these networks will enable cities to be better managed and more efficient and sustainable.

And here comes the bad news

Although there are potential benefits there are also concerns that 5G will in fact lead to skyrocketing energy use, by manufacturing new infrastructure and new devices.
That 175 Zettabytes of data traffic by 2025 will need additional storage capacity, which is provided by data centres, that use enormous amounts of energy. On average, servers and cooling systems account for the greatest shares of direct electricity use in data centres. Some of the world’s largest in the world can each contain many tens of thousands of IT devices and require more than 100 megawatts of power capacity – enough to power around 80,000 US households. Increased demand for data transmission will require a corresponding increase in the energy use of data centres.

Another bad news is that consumers will have to buy new 5G mobile phones to be able to take full advantage of the new network system. There are three main ways that smartphones have an environmental impact: the CO2 emissions of the production, the environmental damage caused by rare earth elements mining, and e-waste. The manufacture of a single iPhone X generates 79 kg of CO2-equivalent greenhouse emission which is already a huge number if we consider that Apple sold 218 million smartphones worldwide in 2018.

Apart from cell phones the manufacture of more IoT devices and small cells also means more mining of many nonrenewable rare metals that are difficult to recycle.
However, there are already strategies to address and lessen the environmental impacts of 5G and make it more sustainable.

It will require a large-scale decarbonisation of our electricity production to cover the increased amount of data traffic’s electricity consumption by clean energy. Shifting towards a circular economy and reducing electronic waste by more ambitious recycling will also be a key element of lessening 5G’s negative impacts on the environment.

When should we expect these changes?

The race to see which country will have the best 5G network has already begun with communication service providers around the world battling one another to build-out, validate, and deploy commercial 5G networks.

China and the United States are two countries at the forefront of building and deploying 5G technology. Interestingly Central and Eastern Europe once again can become a battlefield for the clashing interests of two superpowers.

5G was also a focal point of US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s recent visit to the region showing that the US considers Huawei’s prominent role in the region’s cellular network infrastructure and 5G expansion as a strategic issue and a concrete security threat. The US sealed stronger ties with many countries from the region to cooperate on 5G network including Slovenia, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Greece.

As the revolution of the next-generation network is around the corner and operators are fighting fierce battles over market share we should also prepare for avoiding the added burden of CO2 emissions resulting from this tremendous expansion.

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