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What is the Environmental Impact of 5G and How is it Impacting the World?

Commercial real estate owners have been more conscious in recent years about how they can make their buildings eco-friendlier. These efforts have included using wireless connectivity to reduce energy usage whether it’s through automating the building’s HVAC system, using “smart” windows or installing lighting systems that stay off when a room’s not in use.

Now, 5G’s emergence presents a new challenge in this arena—ensuring that the next generation of wireless connectivity has a positive environmental impact. Fortunately, a number of companies are already taking action to make sure 5G wireless networks are a friend, rather than foe, to the environment.

How does 5G impact the environment?

Like many technological advancements, 5G can affect the environment positively and negatively. Let’s start with the positive. As previously mentioned with CRE owners, 5G can help reduce energy consumption. Combined with the Internet of Things (IoT), a 5G network will allow devices to come on and turn off automatically when they’re being used. Meanwhile, appliance sensors, transportation networks, buildings, factories, street lights and homes can monitor and evaluated their energy needs and consumption in real time and optimize their energy use on the spot. As an example, the Empire State Building’s smart electricity meters reduced its energy costs by 38%, according to the Columbia Climate School.

In-building energy use reduction is just one way that 5G networks will affect the environment. Below are a few more ways 5G will have an environmental impact—good and bad.

Reduced greenhouse gas emissions

If 5G networks reduce energy use, greenhouse gas emissions will be decreased as well. For example, GE’s Digital Power Plant Software could lower carbon emissions by 3% and fuel use by 67,000 tons of coal annually. An Ericsson study forecasted that IoT could decrease carbon emissions 15% by 2030.

Additional energy sources

If a city’s main grid were to falter, 5G and IoT could bring microgrids online, making it easier to use intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar into the grid. The Columbia Climate School noted that Massachusetts-based Ameresco replaced its old steam plant with an automated plant that 20,000 solar modules and its owns microgrid supported at the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, S.C. The new systems decreased the company’s energy use by 75 percent.

Less vehicle emissions

Technology helped a lot of businesses keep running during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reliable wireless connectivity allowed workers to keep in touch through videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. Not only can 5G make out-of-office communication possible, but it reduces the need for as many people to drive to the office or fly for business trips. More people conducting business from their homes can mean less greenhouse emissions from vehicles and airplanes.

Meanwhile, if someone has to drive, 5G can still help the environment. Sensors and cameras that operate on a 5G network can use real time data to keep traffic moving and change stop lights to prevent delays. Less traffic congestion and idling helps keep reduce fuel usage and vehicle emissions.

For example, Carnegie Mellon’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute’s smart traffic control system used radar and cameras to reduce idling, which led to a 20% percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in Pittsburgh. A 5G network can also decrease the number of cars on the road looking for a parking space by helping drivers locate a spot or and enabling ride sharing services.

How can 5G be harmful to the environment?

With many new technologies there’s a downside. And 5G is no exception. Although a number of ways 5G could save energy have already been shared, it’s possible that it could lead to more energy consumption and emissions. Right now, information and communications technology comprises about 4% of global electricity consumption and 1.4% of global carbon emissions, per the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. That’s not a huge amount, but 5G’s emergency will lead to more mobile subscribers, according to an Ericsson report. The company projects that 5G will have more than 2 billion subscribers by 2025 and it’s expected there will be 5.8 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide at that point.

Meanwhile the number of IoT devices around the world could total 125 billion by 2030. If those forecasts are correct, information technology would make up 20% of all of the global electricity consumption and generate 14% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. It’s all the more reason why any system put in place needs to be energy efficient. If not, 5G will do more environmental harm than good.

Don’t forget about data storage centers—they too consume a lot of energy; almost 80% of total network use. Approximately half of that is dedicated to keeping equipment cool, according to Columbia Climate School. Additionally, U.S. data centers consumed 70 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2014 and number is only getting higher—it was projected to reach 73 billion kWh last year. Meanwhile, small cell base stations could eat up three times as much power as 4G base stations.

New network, new products, more waste

Some of the newly released cell phones are 5G enabled, but a lot of users will likely need to purchase a new device if they want 5G access. The surge to buy new 5G mobile phones could lead to more greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, making more IoT devices, phones and small cells will lead to more mining and using a lot of non-renewable metals that are tough to recycle. Plus if customers purchase a 5G-enabled phone they’ll likely toss their old device unless there’s some sort of recycling or buyback program available to them. If not, 5G phone sales will add on the current e-waste problem.

How can 5G be eco-friendly?

Fortunately, many companies are already looking into how to ensure 5G networks have a positive environmental impact. For example, telecommunications equipment company Huawei recently expressed its desire to create “greener” 5G networks. The company also released a white paper last year, Green 5G: Building a Sustainable World explored what governments, mobile network operators, industries and regulators can do to achieve sustainable, green 5G. Some of tips included were:

• Governments can facilitate cooperation between different stakeholders to adopt common platforms and best practice.
• Regulators can lower barriers to 5G deployment by making spectrum and city infrastructure available in a timely and affordable way.
• Mobile network operators can work to form strong relationships with all other stakeholders, to set common objectives for 5G-enabled efficiency, and ensure these are central to 5G planning and deployment.

“The planet is facing a climate emergency which, if not tackled immediately, threatens every aspect of life,” Huawei said in the white paper. “5G is being deployed at a time when energy efficiency is a matter of life or death, and it can play a significant role in helping every industry to hit sustainability goals by enabling them to transform their processes and behavior.

“The rising use of technologies such as cloud computing and mobile connectivity supports new experiences in every aspect of business and personal life, but it is essential that these benefits can be delivered without any detrimental impact on the environment. National and international policies are targeting a dramatic increase in energy efficiency, and a sharp shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and water. This will entail a completely new approach to energy use, which must be adopted by every industry and individual. This is where 5G is an important enabler.”

Consumer electronics company Nokia also recently presented its vision for more sustainable 5G. Last year, Nokia published Flash forward: Life in 2030, How 5G will transform our lives over the next decade, which not only looks at a future where tech is powered by 5G connectivity, but also looks to ensure that the fifth generation of wireless is, “introduced on the principals of equality, trust, sustainability and people-first.”

The paper acknowledges that global decisions on 5G implementation and how it will power the world are too big for any one government, industry or business to make alone. Instead, civil society, industry, government, academia, organizers and politicians alike have to come together and:

• Encourage an open dialogue on the societal implications of 5G and other new technologies
• Come together to drive innovations and new use cases
• Apply sustainable and circular design choices for new tech solutions
• Advocate for the right to digital inclusion
• Co-create rules and regulations for the ethical use of technology
• Agree frameworks for evaluation of 5G carbon footprint and handprint
• Use regulation to drive rapid uptake to technology innovations or new technologies

“5G will fundamentally enhance our lives by powering the fourth industrial revolution,” Karoliina Loikkanen, Head of Sustainability at Nokia said. “But with great power comes great responsibility. We call upon business and government to join Nokia in acting responsibly as we roll out this life-changing technology. Our choices must promote equality, put people first, preserve and strengthen digital trust and ensure sustainability.”

Finally, Ericsson teamed up with MIT Technology Review to create the white paper Decarbonizing industries with connectivity & 5G. The paper looked at how senior tech, business and renewable energy executives are leveraging cellular tech to achieve environmental sustainability as well as operational efficiency objectives. The report concluded that cellular infrastructure, “is a unique and fundamental enabler of decarbonization efforts.”

Companies are increasingly using intelligent systems that digital mobile network support to closely monitor, manage and decrease their energy and resource consumption levels, according to MIT Technology Review.

“Combining individual firms’ analytics capabilities into system-wide solutions will allow these decarbonization benefits to scale exponentially across an industry,” the report said. “At both the individual company and the industry levels, cellular networks are often the infrastructure solution that best provision these resource management capabilities.”

Additionally, mobile broadband infrastructure will facilitate energy, industry or transportation sector participants’ decarbonization efforts via:

• Remote intelligence enabled by cellular connectivity
• New ecosystems and platforms driven by rapid transformation
• New business models from the bottom to the top

“5G-enabled cellular networks are a clear enabler for each of the so-called ‘four Ds’ of renewable energy: decentralization, decarbonization, digitalization, and—increasingly important for this fast-changing and entrepreneurial space—democratization,” RWTH Aachen University Antonello Monti, Professor said.

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