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Sustainability is an important topic that is being addressed urgently worldwide. With telecom operators’ climate-related commitments and the ICT sector’s expanding energy footprint, there is a need to do more and transform faster.

In Europe and the Americas, companies’ carbon neutrality targets for scopes 1 and 2 are set mostly for implementation before 2030 while carbon neutrality targets for other regions — the Middle East and Africa and Asia-Pacific — are set primarily for 2050. Achieving these climate-reduction targets will require a mix of behavioral change, regulation, legislative commitments and technology advancements.

The mobile industry was the first to fully commit to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in 2016 and has since been a forerunner in climate action. “Thanks to continued investment in infrastructure and the resilience of networks, the mobile industry continues to achieve its highest impact on SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Impact,” said Mats Granryd, GSMA Director General.

With technological progress benefiting humanity across different verticals, the telecoms sector is a key player in building a sustainable, resilient and quality ecosystem. To deliver the common 2030 agenda, it is increasingly important for telcos, among other industries, to embed principles of sustainability at their core.

Strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives bring an advantage by putting a spotlight on climate change and sustainability. In fact, an analysis showed that actively addressing and demonstrating consistent performance in sustainability leads to higher market valuations.

It is certain that connectivity has become a necessity for today’s generation. Hence, now is the time to use the momentum of advocating for environmental sustainability to rethink telecom operations and value creation. By responding to the telecom sector’s sustainability challenges, including becoming carbon neutral and bridging the digital divide, digital transformation and innovative solutions can support the transition to a low-carbon, digital economy.

Sustainability commitment

Digital companies, including those that produce and sell ICT equipment, operate telecommunication networks and provide software and other IT services, have become prominent in the race to eliminate harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

By definition, the concept of sustainability assumes that resources are finite and should be used strategically to remain available for future generations. Nowadays, telcos are facing increasing pressure from customers and investors to be sustainable, with customers opting for companies that are sustainable and environmentally responsible.

  • Energy efficiency

Energy costs represent 20–40% of telecoms OPEX – and even higher in diesel-heavy markets such as Southeast Asia and Africa. This trend will intensify as 5G takes hold, increasing the average data usage by 4× in 2025. In 2022 alone, the average usage per smartphone is expected to surpass 15 GB.

Taking this high demand into consideration, one area where the mobile industry can play a significant role is in decarbonizing energy systems. Minimizing energy consumption and maximizing the use of sustainable energy sources at ICT sites requires a transition toward smart energy systems (SES) and a holistic approach to energy management.

Network infrastructure energy efficiency is a priority for operators as networks (RAN, base stations, etc.) represent 90% of energy consumption. Moreover, the massive increase in the amount of data traffic over mobile wireless communication brings the challenge of supplying reliable and clean energy to end-users.

The ability to stabilize power on demand is critical for handling the 4G network, 5G transition, edge computing and IoT, and beyond. With the urgency of achieving carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions to meet net-zero deadlines, the telecom sector is shifting towards a strong commitment to sustainable business practices.

Sunsetting 2G and 3G legacy systems are said to contribute 15% of reduced energy consumption. Major operators in the Middle East and the US have already announced plans to retire these older networks and make way for newer generations.

Ericsson has joined MTN in its commitment toward reaching a net-zero carbon emission future by 2040. Creating shared value in a sustainable manner through responsible ESG practices, MTN will be in a better position to realize its energy use and carbon management efforts by leveraging Ericsson’s latest and most advanced sustainable technologies.

For AT&T, in 2021, more than $111 million was invested to implement approximately 4,600 energy efficiency and reduction projects. For over a decade, an annualized energy savings of nearly 8.1 billion kWh and cost savings of $733.8 million were achieved by AT&T. Among its two innovative energy efficiency solutions are the efficiency-as-a-service (EaaS) platform that helps companies’ large-scale energy efficiency deployments, and the data-driven solution to realize energy and operations savings by the Energy and Building Management Solution (EBMS).

  • Renewable energy

Net-zero commitments have been made by telcos and enabled by a rapid substitution of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels. IoT penetration is also around 35% in solar and 10% in wind, and is set to increase steadily as a result of commitments to renewables that will connect a majority of grids by 2050. 

In July 2021, Vodafone confirmed that its entire European operations will be 100% powered by electricity from renewable sources, marking a key step towards Vodafone’s goal of reducing its own carbon emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2030. While in the MEA region, Jordan is one of the Orange countries with the highest renewable energy rate, equal to or even greater than 50%. du has also showcased its innovative Solar on Tower project which uses the vertical space on the telecom tower to install 65 to 72 solar panels. To date, du’s solar sites have resulted in a total carbon footprint reduction of 3,750 tCO2/year.

Additionally, T-Mobile was the first telecom to commit to going all-in on renewable energy by the end of 2021, and by early 2022, it is powering America’s largest, fastest and most reliable 5G network with 100% clean electricity. Transitioning to renewables, Verizon expects to generate renewable energy equivalent to 50% of its total annual electricity consumption by 2025. Since 2013, the operator has installed 31.5 megawatts (MW) of on-site green energy at administrative offices and other facilities.

Launching its ‘Go Green’ project in 2022, the Rakuten Group is actively pursuing its goal of 100% renewable energy usage across the entire Group by 2023, and supporting the realization of a green society by providing consumers with environmentally friendly living and shopping options.

Unsurprisingly, the use of renewable energy has been found to bring significant reductions in CO2 emissions. Major operators across the world are turning to renewable sources for their energy use and are aiming to make their entire consumption green.

  • Waste reduction

While the average replacement cycle for mobile devices has trended longer in many markets over the past few years, the disposal of billions of devices every year carries a sizable e-waste footprint. Global e-waste is estimated to grow further to 74 million tonnes by 2030, with only a small fraction being recycled.

Recycling efforts are a visible strategy for mitigating the impact of e-waste as well as putting downward pressure on the resource-intensive production of new devices. In terms of emissions, a carbon-neutral economy is the goal, while in terms of waste, the goal is one of a circular economy. This is based on the principles of designing out the waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Telco and IT equipment are a major share of e-waste where 80% is discarded in landfills, burned or illegally traded every year. By 2022, Telstra has targeted that 100% of its branded packaging will be made of renewable or recycled material and will be fully recyclable. By 2025, the telco targets to reuse or recycle 500,000 mobile phones, modems and other devices each year and increase the network waste recycling rate to 85%. In the same context, China Mobile has recycled packaging waste and used recycled paper and other environment-friendly packaging materials. In 2021, over 80% of its newly-procured main equipment used green packaging, saving 262,000 cubic meters of timber resources.

On the other hand, as a result of Rogers’ efforts, 2,799 tonnes of electronic waste were responsibly resold, reused, manufactured or recycled in 2021 – wireless devices alone accounted for an increase of 22%.

In 2020, Etisalat achieved a remarkable 60% recycling rate, deploying sustainable waste solutions such as sensors in the waste bins across retail spaces which provide real-time monitoring of waste accumulation. In that same year, the operator generated a total of 547,356 kilograms (kg) of waste, of which 40% was recycled.

Furthermore, Zain KSA signed an MoU with the Kingdom’s National Environmental Recycling Company (Tadweer) for recycling electronic waste. This is in line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 to improve the quality of life and protect the environment, with the "Saudi Green" and " Middle East Green" initiatives.

Green telcos

Moving ahead, operators are uniquely capable to empower households and businesses across sectors to become more involved in environmental strategies. Beyond providing connectivity, enabling sustainability through telecommunications is an even higher goal, one that is lucrative in the fast-paced digital transformation scene.

A sustainability metric is necessary to know which sectors and products to target in B2B strategies, particularly in deploying vertical use cases such as transportation, automation, remote working and smart applications. Overall, reduced energy consumption, adoption of renewable energy sources and the implementation of a carbon reduction strategy are the three vital elements that must work in tandem for a telco to be considered green.

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