Who can trust industry claims about 5G’s sustainability?
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An avalanche of green reports won’t cool the climate
Who can trust industry claims about 5G’s sustainability?
By Miguel Coma
Since 2020, the telecommunications industry has relentlessly published reports1 that present 5G as “sustainable” and “green.” 5G is the fifth generation of mobile telecommunications. Back in 2020, I reviewed a report from Huawei, the Chinese-owned international provider, claiming that 5G will reduce climate impacts. Since then, Accenture has issued several reports. One of these is for CTIA, the U.S. wireless industry. Today, I will analyse this U.S. report, 5G Connectivity – A Key Enabling Technology to Meet America’s Climate Change Goals.
The Accenture report clearly addresses the need to combat climate change. It also unveils the political agenda behind broadband networks such as 5G, an agenda confirmed in July 2021 by a US Senate Act to invest $65 billion (!) in telecom infrastructure. The Biden Administration has set aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: it aims for 50-52% reductions by 2030 and “net zero” emissions by 2050. Some of the Accenture report’s proposals are worth considering, including private 5G networks for industry–rather than massive deployment of public networks. To support sustainability, the Accenture paper has four sensible recommendations. Yet they can be misinterpreted and are extremely difficult to implement: develop and integrate a sustainability strategy and track against it; design operating models with sustainability at its core and technology as its enabler; recharge innovation as an organizational imperative; collaborate and rethink the ecosystem to boost the common good.
Unfortunately, these recommendations promote wireless technologies; and they ignore wired technologies’ potential to reduce climate impacts.
The CTIA report’s main message is that 5G is necessary to fighting climate change. But it never proves this point. Persistent repetition of this erroneous idea does not make it true. Accenture‘s claiming the same falsehoods presented in Huawei’s 2020 paper does not make them true.
Who paid for this report, and who wrote it?
CTIA, the U.S. Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, now focused on promoting 5G, commissioned the report. Accenture, a global ICT consulting firm with clients in many sectors including telecommunications, wrote the report. I find conflicts of interest at every level: a report financed by the wireless industry, written by an industry provider, to support the industry’s interests.
A final acceleration before hitting the wall?
The report aims to justify wide deployments of new antennas; to keep the economy on the same track of unsustainable and exponential growth; and to convince the public and politicians that 5G is green and clean—and therefore deserving of public funding. Will politicians—or anyone—base their beliefs and decisions on this paper? Or will they recognize its commercial intent?
If I still worked in the mobile industry, this report might initially make me proud of my work’s importance for future generations. I would want to believe the report’s claim that 5G can help achieve one-fifth of the U.S.’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025. Would I check on Accenture’s references? Would I keep loyal to the industry that provides my paycheck—or to the Earth? Would I acknowledge that wanting to believe something does not make it true?
5G for the Internet of Things: a myth?
I do still believe that cellular networks play an essential role in our economy. Yet, 5G networks provide just one way to connect the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). Then, assuming that the IoT is key reducing GHG emissions, other technologies2 can connect the IoT. Associating the IoT with 5G only promotes the myth that IoT requires 5G.
Over-enthusiastic and ignoring negative effects
When the CTIA assumes that 5G will provide the cornerstone of future networks, it ignores one of the technology’s essential flaws: by dramatically increasing wireless data, 5G will dramatically increase its consumption of energy, water and extractions. Called the “rebound effect,” this will likely outweigh 5G’s potential benefits significantly.
The report is silent about 5G’s negative impacts on climate. In 2020, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the digital sector represented a significant 3-4% of total global emissions. (Pre-Covid, aviation was 1.9%). Worse, numerous studies show that 5G will contribute to exponential increases in GHG emissions. 5G energy consumption is also expected to reach new records, according to the mobile industry’s own worldwide GSMA association.
Scientific report or 5G ad?
In any scientific paper, the author’s data, sources, methodology and results are reviewed and validated. This report claims to have analysed thirty-one use-cases leading to reductions in GHG emissions. Yet, Accenture does not list these scenarios; and the authors do not make the data or related calculations available. (Accenture did not respond to my request for their data and calculations.) Some use-cases are briefly described with no details. So, the claims are impossible to validate.
Scientific papers should not be overconfident in their findings. Statements such as: “We conclude that 5G is poised to be the greenest generation of network technology yet;” and “Current global emissions targets will only be achieved through the acceleration of innovative technologies;” and “5G will help increase work-life balance and help people manage their health, while reducing the need for travel…” are clearly advertisements, not evaluations reached by rigorous, due diligent, scientific evaluation.
Overlooked alternatives and side effects
5G will require manufacturing and operating hundreds of thousands if not millions of new cell sites. In the U.S., the number of cell sites is growing, fast. Most of these are being deployed in residential areas on public rights-of-way. In addition to 5G, the report advocates for autonomous electric vehicles (EVs) and “smart” energy management. These technologies will require manufacturing charging stations, grid reinforcements, “smart” meters and new power plants. None of these things “grows” on renewable, carbon-sequestering trees.
The report fails to account for the potentially huge impacts of these new infrastructures’ extractions, energy use—and emissions and toxic waste. The paper suggests that 5G is essential to each of the thirty-one use cases. Since, in most cases, other network technologies can achieve the same result, this is a major flaw.
5G can be a true game-changer when it operates as a private network for manufacturing or logistics. But public 5G networks offer little benefit to consumers and businesses. Building a new network will simply lead to more energy use, while existing networks can adequately satisfy public “needs.”
Repeatedly, the report advocates for investing in more, pervasive and new technology, preferably wireless. Denying the planet’s finite resources and the need for soberly revising our consumer “demands“ and habits, Accenture promotes exactly the opposite.
A narrow view on sustainability
Accenture’s assessment is strictly limited to 5G’s impact on climate. It does not mention or evaluate other essential dimensions that I would expect in a holistic report. For example, the depletion of non-renewable resources (such as metals), water use, air/water/soil pollution, waste generation, and overall energy use are simply ignored.
To move toward sustainability, rather than build a new generation of wireless network every decade, we should use existing networks and promote wired technology wherever possible.
The CTIA report promotes economic growth. It totally misses the point about our current decade’s technological challenges: we must re-think technology so that it is ecologically, economically and socially within our means. Can the digital industry use its innovative skills for the greater good, increase its corporate social responsibility and overall value to society?
1 Agoria’s (represents the Belgian technology industry) Digital4Climate, by Accenture, May 2022; Bitkom’s (represents the German digital industry) Digital Office Index, by Accenture, May 2022 ; CTIA’s (represents the U.S. wireless industry) 5G Connectivity A Key Enabling Technology to meet America’s Climate Change Goals, by Accenture, Jan 2022; GSMA’s (represents mobile network operators worldwide) Mobile Net Zero, 2022; Swisscom’s (mobile network operator) Next generation mobile networks: Problem or opportunity for climate protection?, Oct 2020; Huawei’s (mobile equipment manufacturer) Green 5G, Aug 2020; GSMA’s (represents mobile network operators worldwide) Enablement Effect report, Jan 2020.
2 Other technologies than 5G can connect devices of the IoT: cables, fibre optics, PLC, Zigbee, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Wi-Gig, GPRS (2G), UMTS (3G) and LTE (4G) or technologies specific to the IoT such as LoRa, SigFox, Weightless, Ingenu, Wize, LTE-M (Long Term Evolution Machine), NB-IoT (NarrowBand IoT).
Miguel Coma is an engineer in telecommunications and an Information Technology architect. After over two decades of professional activity in various industries, he began to write, speak and consult about our digital environmental footprint. He believes in peoples’ potential to use technology wisely and create sustainable progress.
This article was originally published by Meer Magazine here: https://www.meer.com/en/70050-an-avalanche-of-green-reports-wont-cool-the-climate