5G’s double-edged sword impact on climate change

5G’s double-edged sword impact on climate change

As the clock ticks closer and closer toward the rollout of 5G worldwide, a new wave of entrepreneurs are frantically thinking of the next multi-billion dollar idea that will drive this rapidly changing era in telecom.  

In parallel, many experts from all professions are studying and prepping themselves to integrate 5G within their core business models to stay ahead of the competition.

While there may be an array of exciting new opportunities and ideas being brought to the forefront, humanity needs to stop and ask itself, “what’s the catch?”

This massive level of accessibility and connectivity that 5G offers is perceived to be a double-edged sword that could either prove to be a valuable weapon in the fight against climate change, or one that quickens its consequences.

First thing’s first:

What is 5G?

5G stands for the fifth generation of wireless technology. It is the wave of wireless technology surpassing the 4G network that is currently used. Previous generations brought the first cell phones (1G), text messaging (2G), online capabilities (3G), and faster speed (4G).

The fifth generation aims to increase the speed of data movement, be more responsive, and allow for greater connectivity of devices simultaneously. This means that 5G will allow for the near instantaneous downloading of data that, with the current networks, would take hours.

This new era of telecoms will bring with it more precise and accurate self-driving cars, the ability for remote surgeries due to shortened latency, as well as a massive expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT), and enhance humanity’s technological capabilities across the aisle. 

Shared responsibility to climate change

Naturally, such high levels of connectivity and computing will demand an increased supply of energy to power this online revolution, thus creating an even bigger need for burning fossil fuels in parallel.  

Faster 5G rollout will accelerate this and cannot be swept under the rug for much longer.

The telecoms industry, alongside governments, have a pivotal role to play to fight global warming, where indirectly supporting customers to reduce CO2 emissions is no longer considered enough.

While 5G will aid in making other industries much more efficient by enabling a broader horizon toward renewable energy generation and reducing travel, telcos urgently need to look inward on solving their own direct greenhouse gas emissions.

In Laymen’s terms, the pure electrical energy required to power networks is costly for operators, either directly from local generators or through power grids. In turn, 5G’s emissions increase in parallel to data growth.

The data center problem

Everything you see online from your social media feeds, to websites, podcasts, videos and the like are all linked to thousands upon thousands of data centers around the globe; consider that these data centers are essentially massive warehouses filled to the brim with wall-to-wall computer systems.

These warehouses need to have power, air conditioning, lighting, uninterruptible power supply (UPS), generators, fire suppression and alarm systems.

Now, just take a moment to consider how much electricity is needed to power the world’s infinite stream of online information. Data centers are known to be one of climate change’s biggest nemesis accounting for 3 percent of globally generated power, and that number will increase in parallel to the skyrocketing demand for data.

An article published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies reported that if the global IT industry was a country, only China and the United States would have a worse impact on climate change.

However, a lot of work is being done by industry giants to kick-start a greener approach for sustainability.

Back in 2014, Microsoft started working on an underwater data center, called Project Natick. After 4 years of excessive research and testing, their research team was successfully able to drown a data center 100 feet under the surface of the North Sea by UK’s Orkney Islands.

As time passes, renewable energy sources (such as wind, solar, and tidal) are being used for eco-friendly data centers, especially as they are less expensive than burning fossil fuels.

Apple followed suit in 2018, where they were able to transfer their entire global enterprise to 100 percent renewable energy. This includes all of their data centers.

In the same year, Google took a colossal step of handing the keys of its cooling controls for several of its data centers to an AI algorithm it has been developing for years.

The algorithm is able to teach itself the most efficient way to adjust cooling systems, from fans, ventilation, as well as many other aspects, in an effort to lower power consumption. The AI would also make recommendations, based on its calculations, to data center managers in which they would decide whether to implement them or not.

This algorithm has led to saving around 40 percent of cooling systems’ power usage across the board.

“It’s the first time that an autonomous industrial control system will be deployed at this scale, to the best of our knowledge,” Mustafa Suleyman, Head of applied AI at DeepMind, the London-based artificial-intelligence company – Google acquired in 2014 – was quoted as saying.

This project is considered a prime example of how AI systems can work alongside humans to extract the best results possible. While Google’s algorithm works independently, a person manages it and has the ability to intervene if they notice any risky behavior.

It’s not all doom & gloom

According to a report done by Huawei, a faster 5G rollout could reduce cumulative carbon emissions by 0.5 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030, due to its quickness of extracting and delivering data, thus lowering computing and processing needs.

Let’s take a moment to consider that 0.5 billion tonnes of CO2 is almost equivalent to the annual carbon emission of all international aviation in 2018.

“Our analysis shows that rapidly rolling out 5G networks could reduce the cumulative CO2 footprint of mobile networks globally by over a third, compared with a slower rollout,” the report stated.

There is still a lot of work to be done from all aspects, especially from national authorities to simplify and ease the work happening on the ground to support the switch to 5G.

This aligns with global ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; thus 5G network deployment should not only be seen as an investment, but also a solid strategy to contain increased energy demands of escalating data growth.

Huawei’s report tackled a number of recommendations that local governments must consider, to enable a smooth transition to 5G, such as incentivizing its accelerated rollout through policy, licensing, and tax cuts.

“Establishing and enforcing rights of way, access to ducting, and nationwide frameworks for use of power/lighting poles and streamlining other planning processes; in addition to reducing or eliminating import duty on 5G infrastructure,” the report added.

More importantly, there needs to be an incentivized migration from 2G/3G to 5G across the board.

As the countdown to 5G rollout edges closer to reality, a lot of work needs to be done to ensure that its launch will work toward the betterment of human life; preventing further damage to an already fragile environment.