GSMA Accelerates the Mobile Industry’s Race to Net-zero Carbon Emissions by 2050
The race to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is speeding up. Business and world leaders met at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November 2021 to discuss how to keep the temperature of our planet under control, by aiming to keep the global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius. Only by producing less carbon than we take out of the world’s atmosphere will we have a chance of achieving this aim. This is what “net zero” means.
The mobile industry, which has been a forerunner in the campaign to fight this global crisis, has long committed to the United Nation’s (UN) 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 13 – Climate Action, since 2016. And as a guardian of the mobile industry, over the years, the GSMA has relentlessly pursued its goals by advocating energy efficiency, transitioning to renewable electricity, and actively engaging with the supply chain in the mobile technology ecosystem. Moreover, the UN has recognized the GSMA as one of the first ‘Race To Zero Accelerators’ for its role in coordinating the industry effort in support of the organization’s Race To Zero campaign.
Steady progress has been made over the last five years. However, there is more to do. The mobile industry needs to push for concerted efforts in the right direction in order to achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development target.
Energy generation is the largest contributor to climate change, accounting for 60% of global emissions. As the world's population continues to grow, the demand for cheap energy will also increase, and an economy reliant on fossil fuels is causing drastic changes to the climate, according to the UN.
As per the GSMA findings, ICT accounts for 4% of the global electricity use, with another 3% for entertainment and media from TVs and broadcasting, and so on. And, the ICT sector produces 1.4% of global carbon emissions, while the mobile sector is responsible for around 0.4%.
Research conducted by the GSMA with the Carbon Trust found that the mobile industry enables carbon reductions in other sectors that are 10 times larger, equivalent to approximately 4% of global emissions. In short, the sector is helping other industries reduce their carbon emissions through the use of mobile and network services for their digital transformation.
As mobile operators set up 5G networks around the world – there are nearly 170 5G networks across 65 countries – it is encouraging to know that 5G mobile networks are built with network energy efficiency in mind; 5G’s specification calls for a 90% reduction in the energy use to transfer each bit of data.
However, in the mobile sector, the factors for climate impact are distributed across the whole value chain with 70% of emission generated from customers, supply chain, and operations combined and 30% from running networks and data centers. The major chunk of emissions in the mobile sector is not only from electricity consumption but emissions arising from the industry’s supply chain. Hence, a holistic approach to reducing carbon footprint in the supply chain is needed. Consequently, the advancements in mobile technology have positioned the industry in a leading role to help other sectors reduce their emissions through digitization.
How is GSMA helping the mobile industry on the journey to net zero?
Realizing the enormity and diversity of the mobile sector supply chain, the GSMA has set up a Climate Action Taskforce comprising 50 major global operator members. The participation has been steadily growing with 11 new members joining the task force as of 2020. Through interactive sessions and engagement programmes, the GSMA works with operators to share best practices and highlight their leadership roles. As a result of such initiatives, many operators have already implemented their carbon emissions’ reduction strategies. The GSMA has also commissioned new research to understand the role of technology in helping the world meet the Paris Climate Agreement.
In 2019, the GSMA agreed to align its targets for the mobile industry to be net-zero by 2050 by initiating the following three steps:
1. Encourage more climate disclosure amongst members
2. Create the ICT sector pathway to net-zero emissions
3. Support members to align their science-based targets
How is the GSMA fairing on the first three steps?
Currently, 59 operators covering 69% of industry connections or 80% by revenue are now disclosing their climate impacts through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). The CDP has created a global reporting system for greenhouse gas emissions and detailing climate risks and opportunities. More than 30 operators covering 50% of connections or 65% by revenue have committed to science-based targets (SBTs) to reduce emissions by 2030 and then to set targets to be reached through supplier associations such as the Joint Audit Committee (JAC), which works with around 200 Tier 1 suppliers on sustainability across the mobile industry. Around a third of the industry, covering 31% by connections and 36% by revenue are aligned to the UN’s Race to Zero pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Also, around 50 million tons of e-waste were produced in 2020 and the number is rapidly growing. Mobile phones form a small portion of overall e-waste by weight, however, the rare earth mineral and metals used in them need consideration in e-waste management. The GSMA ClimateTech Programme has created an E-Waste Legislative Framework Map to bring together summaries of e-waste policies for 76 countries, and local programmes such as the GSMA We Care initiative which helps move towards a more circular economy, thus, avoiding e-waste.
It is heartening to see targets being set for the climate goals; however, the challenge is in achieving them. One of the effective pathways to net-zero is transitioning to renewable electricity. GSMA members were among the first companies in the world to embrace renewable electricity.
Today, nine operator groups are members of the global RE100 campaign and many operators have committed to renewable energy targets. In recent years, some favourable conditions such as investment flows and better technologies have helped the adoption of renewables. However, some countries are lagging in the energy policy frameworks that support renewable energy projects. Moreover, many fossil fuel subsidies are also distorting the energy market by keeping fossil fuel prices artificially low. A total of around $650 billion is spent every year worldwide on subsidizing energy sources. About 70% or $450 billion is spent on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, while little more than a quarter (about $170 billion) goes to renewables. The rest supports nuclear energy. The GSMA has been initiating active discussions with the governments to support decarbonisation by providing more renewable electricity.
Another area within the control of the industry is the energy efficiency of the networks. The industry spends US$17 billion per year on energy, resulting in 15-40% of operating expense (opex) and 90% of the network costs are energy (fuel and electricity). Many operators have been running energy efficiency programmes for years. For instance, Huawei promotes its PowerStar Solution to mobile operators, which won the GSMA’s 2020 GLOMO for ‘Best Mobile Innovation for Climate Action’ award. Additionally, Huawei's ‘Nature Guardian’ project received the GSMA 2021 GLOMO for Outstanding Mobile Contribution to the UN SDGs for deploying cutting-edge technology solutions to protect nature, prevent deforestation, and safeguard against biodiversity loss. Moreover with the adoption of 5G technology which is designed for network energy efficiency, up to 90% reduction in energy use for data transfers can be attained. As a step in the right direction, GSMA Intelligence started the energy efficiency benchmarking pilot this year to compare operator networks around the world.
Digitization supporting decarbonization
As per the International Telecommunication Unit (ITU) recent report on climate change, the global population living in cities is expected to surge from 50% in 2021 to 70% in 2050. Cities today account for 70% of global CO2 emissions and an average of 75% of global energy use.
A GSMA report produced in collaboration with The Carbon Trust, an independent sustainability specialist, showed that mobile technology-enabled a global reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions of around 2 billion tons in 2018. GHG savings are 10 times greater than the global carbon footprint of the mobile industry. Carbon reductions are being enabled across the economy through smart technologies in various sectors, including smart cities, traveling, hospitality, healthcare, and manufacturing. These developments are also being seen as potential new markets for mobile operators for not just providing connections, but also smart technology services.
In conclusion, the adverse effects of climate change can impact the business prospect of the mobile industry as an infrastructure business. Therefore, ensuring networks that are robust enough to withstand extreme weather conditions and ones that are easy to restore is crucial. All stakeholders need to channel their energies in tackling climate change through adaptation and resilience. For instance, May 20th, 2021, Bonn, in the Capital Markets Day, Deutsche Telekom's CEO Tim Hottges issued the carbon emissions target and committed full carbon neutrality in 2040. July 15th, 2021, China Mobile released its Carbon Neutrality Action Plan. The GSMA's AI for Impact project leverages mobile operator big data to understand the internal displacement of citizens to develop insights for governments and aid agencies to prepare for disasters, monitor pollution levels and analyze country-level impacts to provide support for vulnerable communities.
Climate change is real and happening and the mobile industry has been playing its part with all seriousness and responsibility. However, the time has come to bolster efforts until the net-zero targets have been achieved. In addition, the GSMA continues to provide support on climate action to members, suppliers, and partners in the broader mobile ecosystem. Over the last two years, the GSMA has developed an extensive set of resources that are freely available on its website (https://www.gsma.com/climate).