Can 5G save the planet?
Published on: March 24, 2020

Climate Change’s Unlikely Ally

THE 5G FUTURE promises more. More speed. More security. More support for cutting-edge applications such as robotic telemedicine and driverless cars.

Yet to achieve its full potential while protecting the environment, the next generation of wireless networking will need to deliver less in one key area.

Energy consumption.

From sleek mobile phones to ubiquitous cellular antennas to sprawling data centers, our increasingly connected digital lives require increasing amounts of electricity. The result? Increasing contributions to the carbon emissions that scientists believe are the driving force behind climate change and planetary warming.

The numbers tell the story. Canadian researchers estimate that by next year, information and communications technology (ICT) will account for 3.5 percent of annual global carbon emissions, a larger share than the aviation and shipping industries will account for.

That figure could jump to 14 percent of worldwide emissions by 2040, roughly equivalent to the percentage now attributable to the entire population of the United States.

Inside and outside the telecommunications industry, there’s concern that the pending 5G shift could play a significant role in any rise. By 2022, networks are expected to support 26 billion devices and connections worldwide, an increase of about 10 billion from 2015.

A 5G world includes many more wireless devices, including security cameras, smart appliances, and connected factory robots. More devices transmitting much more data figures to require far more power. Telecom sustainability expert Anders Andrae calls this situation a potential “perfect storm” of increased energy consumption.

“This is a real concern for 5G,” says Zach Chang, a carrier network product manager at the communications technology company Huawei. “It will be much more powerful than 4G in terms of processing power and bandwidth and has the potential to cover the whole Earth’s population.

“All of that will increase energy consumption. If the efficiency of the entire infrastructure doesn’t go up, it won’t make financial or environmental sense. It won’t be sustainable.”

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