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Research

What is the impact of 5G on the environment?

It is often claimed that 5G will lead to an astronomical rise in energy consumption. In fact, from a technological perspective 5G is far more energy efficient. But what are the effects of increasing data transmission? Research by the University of Zurich and Empa has analysed the impact of 5G on the environment.
Marius Schlegel
Marius Schlegel, is the Swisscom employee responsible for climate friendly services.
22 December 2020

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, for society and for the economy. Switzerland ratified the Paris Climate Change Accord and has pledged to become climate neutral by 2050. This means that we need to consider the effect of future ICT infrastructures, such as 5G mobile networks, on Switzerland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

 

A study jointly commissioned by Swisscom and swisscleantech reveals the impact powerful mobile networks can have on climate protection. A research team from the University of Zurich and Empa investigated the energy and material flows for the construction and operation of the networks and compared 4G and 5G technologies.

 

The team also examined the climate impact of a range of 5G-enabled applications. The research concluded that each of these use cases, from flexible working and smart-grid technology to precision crop management, offers huge potential for energy efficiency and climate protection.

The study’s most significant findings:

  • In 2030, the greenhouse gas emissions from 5G networks will be lower than those of 4G networks, assuming that both expand in line with expected data traffic growth.
  • It is predicted that emissions for 5G networks will be around 4.5 g CO2e/GB (equivalent CO2 per gigabyte) in 2030, which is 85% lower than current emissions from mobile networks.
  • 5G enables applications that may enable reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Significant potential has been identified in the following areas:

Flexible working. This reduces business travel and commuting due to more efficient virtual collaboration.

 

The use of smart grids within the power network. These automate and optimise network operation and increase the proportion of renewable energy in our energy supply system.

 

Precision crop management. This can reduce the use of agricultural products such as fertilisers and increase productivity in livestock farming


According to the study’s authors, it is possible to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 through the targeted use of the 5G network for those applications that demonstrate considerable potential to reduce greenhouse gases.

 

Two issues threaten to get in the way of this potential curb in greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Firstly, rebound effects may diminish or even offset the expected reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, enhanced greenhouse gas efficiency may lead to an increased demand for particular services, thereby resulting in additional emissions.
  • Secondly, the applications involved may require additional (non-5G) ICT resources, such as laptops to facilitate flexible working; sensors, drones or robots for precision crop management, whose production and operation generate additional greenhouse gas emissions

Harnessing the opportunities of 5G

In order to harness 5G technology to protect the climate, action is required in two areas.

  • Firstly, it is important to keep the greenhouse gas emissions caused by ICT low. It is crucial to involve the entire ICT sector in this. 5G infrastructure accounts for less than three percent of the ICT sector's entire greenhouse gas emissions and using 5G to reduce emissions requires additional IT equipment which is not specific to 5G.
  • Secondly, appropriate conditions must be established to curb greenhouse gas emissions that arise from transport, the supply of energy and agriculture.

The full study has been published in English on the University of Zurich website: https://www.ifi.uzh.ch/en/isr/news/news/5G-study-published.html

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