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The ICT industry as a whole account for 3 to 4% of global CO2 emissions. As one of the most widespread and significant segments within this industry, telecom and all the players involved have a sizeable impact on both CO2 emissions and e-waste.

To be specific, the telecom sector contributed 2.6% of total CO2 emissions in 2020, while 80% of e-waste is discarded, burned, or illegally traded, with telco and IT equipment being a major contributor. With these in mind, although the sector isn’t as energy or resource-intensive, steps are needed to be done to reduce unfavorable environmental impact.

By and large, all telcos have a role to play in making their services more sustainable. In fact, as telcos receive pressure to respond with environmental sustainability, they have begun to embed sustainability strategies into their everyday business decisions. Many are now aiming to become carbon neutral by 2050, a goal supported by the GSMA.

In addition, major telcos have defined specific 2030 targets for emissions, waste, and the share of renewable energy which not only reduce the company’s own carbon footprint but enable customers and other industries to become more climate positive.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the ICT industry will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% between 2020 and 2030 to comply with the Paris Agreement. This calls for urgent action from service providers, operators, manufacturers, etc., as well as individual consumers and enterprises.

No question that sustainability should be a strategic priority within telcos to continue fulfilling its mission and value to society. From greener infrastructures to eco-friendly data centers up to digitized processes and stable connectivity, the telecom sector's sustainability objectives of becoming carbon neutral and bridging the digital divide need time and effort to be achieved. Despite that, the industry is already making huge progress that should be continued for the benefit of the greater good. 

Areas to focus on

When it comes to sustainability, the telecom industry can focus on three key areas that can be significant drivers for an energy-efficient and nature-friendly ecosystem.

Customers are an indispensable part of telcos’ journey. Many offerings of the ICT industry can enable business customers to cut down energy consumption such as digitization, data processing, and functional optimization. From a B2B approach, telcos must ensure that customers are getting much value out of their products as customers of today expect their vendors to do more than sell but also help them achieve business outcomes in the most efficient way possible.

In terms of reducing carbon emissions, it is important that the focus of telcos shifts to energy-saving technologies and alternate sources of energy. As an ever-increasing number of people around the world become connected by fixed and mobile telecom networks, the challenges related to the electricity consumption of these expanding networks surge as well. Increasing public demand for CSR and a genuine desire to effect positive change in the environment are leading telecom service providers and their suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint. Going green with streamlined power management, infrastructure sharing, and the use of renewable energy sources over a product’s lifecycle can substantially reduce telcos’ network operation costs and evidently cut down carbon emissions.

A circular economy is an economic system that targets zero waste and pollution through the simple context of reducing, reusing, and recycling. Examples include mobile phone recycling, device trade-ins, or refurbishing. This can not only reduce CO2 emissions but also limit the release of toxic elements into the environment. Mobile phones, SIM cards, wires, batteries, and other telecom equipment are non-biodegradable pollutants. That is why adopting circularity practices is essential. Along with this, dematerialization or the process of delivering the same product but using less-to-none materials can be observed with the rise of eSIM usage.

Role of digital technologies

Besides being part of the problem, ICT also plays a huge role in the solution. With the combination of digital technologies, particularly 5G, AI, IoT, and cloud, the industry enables significant reductions in GHG emissions and costs across a range of sectors of the economy. Delivering smart solutions like smart grid, teleconferencing, smart logistics, and transportation are just some examples.

5G. The latest generation of mobile technology, 5G, is being deployed at a time when energy efficiency is a crucial matter. Hence, it has a significant role in helping every industry to hit sustainability goals as an enabler. With a 5G network’s high-capacity, low-latency, ubiquitous, and reliable capabilities, the 5G enabling effect arises from changes to processes and behavior. Together with virtualization, edge computing, AI-enabled analytics, and cloud, 5G can help industries to implement new processes and support the most efficient and flexible allocation of resources.

Accordingly, the ability to lean on 5G-powered smart technology could result in a reduction of about 6% of the annual emissions. Considering the positive impact 5G will have on sustainability, a Qualcomm report highlights that a much more energy-efficient network can be built on techniques such as beamforming, device-to-device communication, mobile infrastructure sharing, and energy harvesting.

Cloud. With the cloud, not only are fewer servers used but also they are powered efficiently. By switching IT operations to the cloud (either public, private, or hybrid), operators can significantly lower carbon emissions and electricity consumption in the long haul. In general, cloud computing data centers use less wattage to provide backup power and cooling as these are designed at scale and built for efficient energy use to achieve optimal utilization and temperature.

A Capgemini research suggests that cloud computing could potentially remove 1 billion metric tons of CO2 between 2021 and 2024. Think of moving to the cloud like switching from owning a personal car using public transportation. Thus, reduced physical infrastructure and energy usage since cloud-native applications consume fewer resources, are made possible.

AI. Artificial intelligence certainly expands the potential for energy-saving opportunities across the industry. In cases such as driving sustainable 5G networks, it’s important to deploy AI at this point. This will gain enough time to train the algorithms and continually optimize network operations and costs down the line. Clearly, AI solutions are fundamental in realizing quick and substantial energy efficiency gains, in line with telcos’ environmental and social responsibilities.

Along with the use of renewables, AI energy management is known to be central to many CSP strategies. In addition, zero-touch automation within AI programs conveys improved energy savings by closely aligning usage patterns to real-time network demands and identified performance anomalies that saps energy resources and requires equipment replacement.

IoT. With advanced IoT and wireless connectivity, the two concepts of digital innovation and sustainability work in tandem. Thanks to sensors, algorithms, and different communication networks, creating and distributing energy becomes automated, allowing a much more sustainable approach.

According to the World Economic Forum report, the energy used in IoT information networks and sensors for its storage and distribution would enable greater efficiency, reduce the kW price and increase the use of various renewable energy sources like solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal. Moreover, buildings and infrastructure connected to the IoT, as well as smart and sustainable transportation, are projects that could reduce energy consumption, improve air quality and reduce CO2 emissions.

Initiatives of telcos

Telecom firms have kickstarted their efforts in decarbonizing their networks and showing an appetite for investment in innovation for sustainability. Equipped with the technology, connectivity, and coverage within ICT industry, it is an ideal springboard between enterprises and in service and technology provider portfolios in acting towards a global and ecological environment.

Nokia has called for accelerated digitalization and green energy uptake, as well as setting its sights on 100% renewable electricity in its own operations by 2025. Pekka Lundmark, president and CEO of Nokia, said, “There is no green without digital. Only 30% of the world’s economy is currently digitalized, and we must now work to connect the remaining 70% to ensure the world can reach net zero. 5G and related technologies play a critical role in making other industries more sustainable”.

Additionally, Nokia and Orange have signed an agreement to increase the use of refurbished equipment in telecoms infrastructure. The refurbishment process is expected to generate reductions in carbon emissions, with all refurbished equipment meeting the reliability criteria in line with European Union and ITU directives. "We are proud to share our common vision of the circular economy with Nokia, a vision where environmental exemplarity supports sustainable value creation,” said Orange’s Ramon Fernandez, delegate CEO, executive director of finance, performance, and development.

To decarbonize the economy, especially in the Middle East, accelerating the energy transition is a prerequisite, said Nourdine Bihmane, group chief delivery officer, decarbonization business line, Atos. This follows the path of Huawei that is big on its goal of building a low-carbon smart society. Fang Liangzhou, vice president and CMO of Huawei Digital Power, mentioned that integrating digital and power electronics technologies would help industries save energy and reduce emissions from both power generation and consumption. More so, Huawei adheres to the green pledge of "Tech for a Better Planet" and has continued to invest in reducing carbon emissions, promoting renewable energy, contributing to a circular economy, and conserving nature with technology.

Etisalat also promotes leveraging technologies to accelerate the shift to a low carbon economy and finding new ways to improve energy efficiency, reducing emissions, and addressing the climate crisis. Dr. Ahmed bin Ali, group SVP, corporate communications at Etisalat said, “By providing reliable and innovative mobile networks and working alongside various industrial partners in the region, we aspire to leverage technology to create sustainable and new business models and support the UAE to reach its sustainable environment and infrastructure targets of Vision 2021.”

By the same token, Virgin Mobile Middle East and Africa (VMMEA) announced that it has achieved net zero carbon emissions across all of its own operations. As part of its ongoing sustainability efforts, VMMEA has already eliminated more than 50 tonnes of single-use plastic across the region, with operations in Oman and Saudi Arabia now being 100% single-use plastic free.

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