The Environmental Sustainability of 5G

5 min read.

A 5G-dominated future promises more. More speed, more connectivity and more support for innovations such as automated machines, autonomous vehicles and eventually smart cities. However, with the widespread utility of this ultra-fast network in the near future, there will also be more energy consumption, one of the main contributors of climate change. While there are certainly many benefits that 5G will bring about for consumers around the world, large scale 5G deployment can result in serious environmental trade-offs as well. 

In March 2020, Raconteur reported the latest figures from GSM Association to indicate a 3 percent consumption of global energy by the telecommunications industry in 2019. An analysis conducted by two Canadian researchers estimated this figure to reach 14 percent by 2040, which is roughly equivalent to the current energy consumption of the entire United States population. 5G could play a significant role in this increase, given that its networks are projected to support up to 26 billion devices and connections worldwide by 2022, based on  a Cisco report. With the advent of widespread 5G technology in the near future, wireless devices will likely become the norm in our lives. Such devices require more power to transmit data figures, which could lead to what Swedish researcher Anders Andrae calls a “perfect storm” of increased energy consumption.

A Cluster of 5G Towers
Credit: Raconteur

How is 5G detrimental to the environment?

5G aims to use millimeter waves instead of the radio waves, which creates a wider bandwidth to support larger tasks and allows for more data to be shared at a faster speed. However, millimeter waves have been found to result in many disturbances in the ecosystem, particularly that of  birds. A study conducted by the Center for Environment and Vocational Studies of Punjab University found that a 5 to 30 minutes exposure to radiation from a cell tower can cause the eggs of sparrows to become disfigured. With a high density of 5G infrastructure in many areas in the near future, entire populations of birds might experience mutations that could threaten their survival. Similarly, bees’ ecosystems can also be severely stunted by 5G radiation, causing worker bees to lose their navigation skills and their ability to pollinate. Because all ecosystems are interconnected, the disruption of these two animal populations will only lead to a disturbance in the Earth’s entire ecosystem, possibly wiping out important populations from the planet in the long run.

When it comes to human consumers, the idea of heightened connectivity, increased speed and more space in devices may seem appealing at first, but it can actually lead to a spike in energy usage for two reasons. Firstly, the technology itself requires a large amount of energy, amounting to about three times that is used to power LTE networks, according to IEEE Spectrum. Secondly, it will lead to an increase in demand for more electronic devices, since the ability for more devices to be used on the same network could incentivize consumers to purchase more gadgets and use them more frequently. 

With more energy being consumed, climate change and global warming will arguably be sped up, a report by Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington predicted. In a report by the European Union, researchers estimated that carbon emissions need to be reduced by 15 to 30 percent in 2020 in order to keep the increase in global temperature under two degree celsius. However, this goal will not be achieved if global energy consumption were to increase with the widespread deployment of 5G.

While 5G advocates have claimed that the small cells used to power 5G connections can make use of wind or solar energy to remain sustainable, the massive increase in the number of new devices that would be owned and used by consumers will still increase the amount of energy needed to power these devices. Moreover, computers, mobile phones and other devices are currently manufactured in a way that strains the environment by emitting copious amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide. With large corporations such as Huawei and Apple racing to launch devices that support 5G network, the scale of manufacturing is ramped up significantly. This increase is projected to grow even more as 5G becomes more widely used in the market in the upcoming years. To make matters worse, non-renewable metals are required to make such devices, according to a report by Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. This means that they generate huge amounts of waste in both  creation and disposal processes.

What can be done to minimize this?

In light of the negative consequences that 5G could possibly have on the environment, a need for international standards to regulate a sustainable deployment of 5G technology is presented. Such standards need to necessitate using less power to transmit data and reducing the power required for each bit of internet traffic. While the temptations for short term economic gains might be alluring, companies should seriously consider the environmental impacts of 5G first before pushing for 5G expansions. Fortunately, 5G networks need not bring about detrimental harms to the environment if sustainable practices are implemented. In fact, if used conscientiously, 5G networks can even bring about positive impacts on the environment and slow climate change in the long run.

Chinese company Huawei has taken the initiative to make environmental sustainability a focus in their 5G expansion. In the company’s 2018 Sustainability Report, Chairman Liang Hua mentioned that the same amount of power that is used to download about 300 high-definition movies with 4G can be used to download about 5000 ultra-high definition movie downloads with 5G. New base stations that require fewer heat-generating electronic components have also been deployed in Hangzhou city, which trade air-conditioning for the more sustainable alternative of open-air cooling. With reductions in energy use like those achieved in Hangzhou, 8.3 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity and 2.3 billion kilograms of carbon emissions could be saved each year. Similarly, The Atlantic reported European company Nokia and Japanese company NTT DOCOMO to have developed base stations that make use of liquid cooling and renewable energy sources. These solutions reduce expenses related to energy operations by nearly one third and lower carbon dioxide emissions by up to 80 percent.

Apart from tweaking 5G infrastructure to be more sustainable, it will also be up to consumers and users of 5G to minimize their individual energy consumption. According to Zach Chang, a carrier network product manager at Huawei, 5G can lead to a greater “capacity to incorporate sensors into daily life, from industry to our own homes”. This change would allow consumers to “modulate [their] energy use in so many places [they have] overlooked, just because [they] didn’t have the communication tools to make equipment truly smart” before the implementation of 5G. This means that consumers will be able to track and reduce their energy consumption with greater efficiency, which allows any energy wastage to be identified and rectified quickly.

Given both sides of the sustainability argument, the environmentally-friendly aspects of 5G should be maximized, while unsustainable practices in its development and deployment should be eliminated and replaced with sustainable options. Both suppliers and consumers of 5G ought to be conscientious in the ways they interact with 5G technology, before it becomes too late.