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Innovation Briefing Issue 7 | What are the networks doing about emissions?

  • 11 minute read
  • Published by Simon Rockman on 26 Nov 2021
  • Last modified 22 Dec 2021
The telecommunications and computing industries may contribute less than 1.5 per cent of all manmade carbon emissions, but few industries can boast such a positive impact. Research conducted by Ericsson reports that the need for physical journeys, and enabling efficiencies in sectors such as utilities, manufacturing and transport, ICT can have a tenfold effect on the reduction in emissions. But the industry is far from complacent, and is examining the environmental impact it makes.

This isn’t always easy. For example, a core value of mobile network is its reliability, aspiring to ‘five, meaning its available for 99.999 per cent of the time, or all but five minutes a year. But this comes at a cost. It requires the duplication of equipment and infrastructure, which in turn consumes power. In rural areas, particularly in emerging nations, this may mean installing base stations powered by their own diesel generators. Cost savings have always driven power consumption, but in the past, the relationship between capital expenditure and operating costs was not calculated into an explicit environmental impact. Using fossil fuels provides cheap, reliable power, but renewable sources are less reliable, and so must be backed up with batteries - making them very much more expensive.

With regulation and public opinion as driving forces the motivations for the telecommunications industry are changing. And the equation is getting easier to balance. Solar cells are becoming more efficient with the introduction of compound semiconductors, which means less land has to be bought. Photovoltaic panel prices are coming down thanks to huge increases in manufacturing scale, and battery power densities are improving. Technologies such as flow batteries can work well with renewable power such as wind, solar and tidal which are not continuously available.


BT has set impressive targets. The company plans to be net zero by 2030 and require its suppliers and customers to do the same by 2040. It’s an ambitious step, upping the ante from a previous target of 2045. In the last year BT consumed 2.5 terawatts of electricity - for operations that now 100 percent renewable.

It’s a path the company has been following for 30 years, and it was one of the first to set a carbon reduction target in 1992. In 2008, set out to reduce its carbon emissions intensity - the ratio between earnings and emissions - by 80 percent. Having achieved this four years early in 2016, the company set a new target in line with the most ambitious aim of the Paris Agreement, aligned to a 1.5ºC pathway. This target to reduce the emissions intensity by a further 87 percent with a deadline of early 2031.

But BT’s statement on climate change is more than just a list of ambitions. It’s working with suppliers to help them reduce their carbon emissions by 42 percent by 2030. BT can now boast that it has reduced the emissions intensity of its operations by 57 percent since 2016/17, and has reduced overall carbon emissions by 19 percent in its supply chain over the same timeframe.

The company can claim that consumers who buy mobile or broadband from EE, BT or Plusnet are already supplied by networks that are powered by 100 per cent “clean power”. Progress on carbon reduction and on digital skills training now makes up part of the bonus calculation for eligible BT colleagues.

Since BT is also a fixed line operator with a customer base of 30 million households, it is well placed to help consumers cut their own carbon footprint, should they wish to. A report produced for BT by Accenture claims that switching fixed access data away from Fibre to the Cabinet to Fibre to the Home, along with closing less-efficient legacy technology, could lead to a potential seven-fold improvement in energy efficiency. The Accenture analysis suggests that from 2029, decisions to retire legacy 3G mobile networks, and migrate customers onto 5G will decrease the energy demand of mobile networks, contributing to the overall decrease in energy demand of 10 per cent between 2020 and 2030.


Vodafone has announced an ambition for net zero by 2040. It will aim to eliminate all carbon emissions from its own activities as well as from the energy it purchases. The company also aims to halve its carbon emissions from joint ventures, supply chain purchases and business travel, as well as from the products it sells, by 2030, and will eliminate carbon emissions from its UK operations by 2027. As of July 2021, the company’s European network will be 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity. All of the new targets have been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative SBTi, an initiative set up by the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), the UN Global Compact and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The organisation encourages the private sector to set targets in line with the Paris Agreement.

To spread the word on renewable energy, Vodafone has turned to flower power and installed a solar energy ‘Smartflower’ at its Newbury campus. A foldable, rotating array of petal-shaped photovoltaic solar panels, the Smartflower produces up to 40 per cent more power than conventional solar panels.

The Austrian-made installation is heliotropic: it rotates on its axis and tilts so that it always maintains the optimal 90-degree angle to the sun, mimicking the behaviour of a sunflower – which also turns to face the sun throughout the day. Although just 4.8m in diameter, the Smartflower is capable of generating more than 5,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year – more than enough electricity to power a four-bedroom house over the same period.

It is also self-cleaning. Once the sun has set, the Smartflower folds up its petals and integrated brushes sweep away dirt and dust. This helps maximise efficiency. It also folds up automatically when it detects high winds.

Vodafone plans to install 10 of these Smartflowers at office locations in the UK, South Africa, Germany, Spain and Italy, as visible symbols of its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint.

In the UK, Vodafone claims to have cut its energy usage by 100 gigawatt hours, which is enough to power a town of 65,000 people for a year, and the equivalent of 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Vodafone UK is also using the Internet of Things technology to help scientists learn how effective trees are at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The network has completed trials of a new 5G radio, the Ericsson AIR 3227, that helped energy consumption decrease by a daily average of 43 per cent, and as much as 55 per cent at off-peak times, and vows to deploy 1,500 units by April 2022. Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK, said: “Our strategy is simple; turn off anything we don’t need, modernise our network where possible, and use the most energy efficient options available without compromising the service we deliver to our customers. The success of this trial allows us to explore new ways we can more effectively manage the energy consumption of our network with our partner Ericsson. There is no silver bullet for managing network energy consumption – it is about putting sustainability at the heart of every decision and adding up all the small gains to make a material difference.”

In another example of saving costs and reducing environmental impact, Vodafone has been working with Ericsson to use drones to inspect cell sites. HD video-quality cameras and LIDAR create millions of datasets that build a ‘digital twin’ of the site, a virtual replica. Instead of sending several engineers to the site, sometimes more than once, data and imagery can be collected by one specialist drone operator.

Vodafone is also using IoT and artificial intelligence to monitor base stations, a technology it calls Smart Sites, to manage issues remotely. By reducing the number of people travelling, often to remote and difficult to reach locations, Vodafone’s impact on the environment can be reduced.

Vodafone has developed a detailed climate strategy across agriculture, manufacturing and transport. There has been good progress but the company is looing to do more. Westminster political consultancy WPI has worked with Vodafone to look at how different digital technologies might be valuable in the battle against climate change. Among its recomendations Vodafone wants to see the setting of targets for the adoption of digital technology as part of industry’s net zero strategy. It sees huge potential to harness 5G and IoT  improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

Virgin Media O2

Virgin Media O2 is the outcome of a merger between Liberty Global, owner of Virgin Media, and Telefonica, which owned O2.

Virgin Media is ambitious: Net zero carbon and zero waste operations by end of 2025. It is looking to transition its fleet to electric vehicles and targets a reduction in operational footprint by the end of 2025, on track to support parent company Liberty Global’ s target of 50 per cent reduction by 2030. To achieve this VMO2 will source 100 per cent renewable electricity and invest in carbon offsetting schemes for the remaining emissions. It will also look reduce supply chain emissions by 50 per cent by 2030

One approach Virgin Media is taking which marks it out from the other telecommunications companies is supporting the rollout of on-street electric vehicle charging through Liberty Charge. It will also use its TV platform and partnerships to “amplify and encourage engaging climate content”. Every broadband or TV product sent to customers will contain at least 75 per cent recycled plastic content, or be a refurbished product. This is expected to save over 5,000 tonnes of waste through avoiding material in design, using recycled content and refurbishing and reusing customer products. The company explains “We have millions of electrical products in customers’ homes, a logistics operation that sends equipment around the country, we dig miles of trenches to expand our network, and we have over 11,000 people working across the country. All of this means we have a responsibility to address the waste we produce, and create a more circular model where material is valued and kept in use, so that it never becomes waste.”

From before the merger, O2 has a detailed plan of its own for achieving net zero in its own operations by 2025. It is also looking to reduce emissions from its supply chain by 30 per cent to the same timescale. It has produced a guide for businesses on reducing their carbon impact which can be downloaded at here. This details how O2 is working towards its targets. In some instances, this requires a lot of co-operation. Some cell sites are hosted on building where space is leased and power is provided by the landlord. O2 is working with the property owners to incentivise them to buy power from renewable sources - a project which has been running for some time. In 2016, O2 became the first organisation in the world to receive the highest-level (Level 3) certification for its supply chain from the Carbon Trust Standard. Like its Virgin Media sibling, O2 is looking to bring its numbers down as far and fast as possible through engineering, and then get over the line to net zero with offsetting and greenhouse gas removal.


By contrast with EE, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone, Three is only just starting down the green path. It explains on its website “We’re committed to limiting the effect we have on the environment. So, we’re working with the Carbon Trust to understand our own carbon footprint and aim towards net zero. As part of CK Hutchison Group Telecom Holdings Limited, we’re setting a net zero goal, to be validated during 2021.” There is an employee forum with green champions and by using DPD for logistics 15 per cent of deliveries were by electric vehicle.   from the industry.

Telecommunications  is the supplier to industries ranging from agriculture to zoology, and given how much modern communications contributes to the reduction of global carbon emissions, the mobile industry could have been excused for thinking it was exempt from keeping its own house in order. There are so many stories of how telecommunications allows other businesses to reduce their carbon footprint one could have seen a mindset that pleaded to be a special case. 

But operators have a history of achievement and a strong sense of purpose, and in the main, have taken up the challenge, and examined what they can do to reduce their own environmental impact. Perhaps there is a little abdication of responsibility – buying green power isn’t quite the same as making your own with cell sites powered by wind, solar, heat pumps and tidal waves – but that will come. Using carbon offsetting is far from ideal, but the operators realise that this can only be an interim measure.

The answer to the question “How green is the 5G industry?” was, and always will be “not green enough”. The encouraging thing is that the industry recognises this, has made progress so far, and is striving to do better.