Andy McLean has over 25 years of experience developing successful solutions for customers in telecom, datacenter, video processing, industrial and automotive applications. He is currently Corporate Vice President, Communications & Cloud at global semiconductor company Analog Devices.
How is global connectivity impacting the environment?
Connectivity has changed our society for the better. Yet it’s having a hugely damaging impact on the planet - mostly due to CO2 emissions. For perspective - the average American streams around 1000 hours of TV per year. This creates 100,000g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) - more than driving 18,000 miles. Data from photos, videos, texts and emails creates roughly 22 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year, per person – the equivalent of flying from New York to London 26 times.
These stats become more worrying when we consider how our data dependence will grow. Right now, telcos – the companies that keep us connected - are responsible for 1.6% of global CO2 emissions, yet forecasts indicate this will swell to 14% by 2040. That’s a mighty portion of the emissions pie. And where other carbon-intensive sectors might experience a drop in demand – such as meat production- connectivity is one pandora’s box we won’t be able to close. Nor would we want to. So, what’s being done about it?
What positive changes can be made to reduce the impact of telcos on the environment?
Data centres and radio towers need a huge amount of energy to keep running. So, using a renewable power source is critical.
Some telcos such as Sweden’s Tele2 and Telia, and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom have cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost 100%, just by shifting to renewables. But as of 2023, only a quarter of electricity used by global mobile networks comes from renewable energy. This also varies between continents, with North American operators using just 40% renewable energy, rising to 80% in Europe.
As this needs to increase, many telcos have started engaging in what we call Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). These are long-term arrangements that help shield providers from market fluctuations. Others are attempting to mitigate their footprint by upgrading to more energy-efficient infrastructure, such as full fiber and 5G technology.
No industry works in silos, so it’s not fair to put all the blame on telcos themselves.
Behind every provider is a long and complex supply chain (“scope 3”). This supply chain is responsible for the majority of the telecom sector’s overall emissions footprint making it a major priority for decarbonisation.
As a result, pressure is building on these “behind the scenes” partners to get their own affairs in order, and fast. Telcos are starting to introduce climate thresholds and targets as criteria in their procurement processes. Analog Devices, for instance, creates key semiconductor and sensing tech for IoT and other network ecosystems. To keep our carbon footprint low, we use a mix of onsite generation and renewable energy credits, and are now investigating virtual PPAs as a long-term option.
What is the future of teclos and sustainability?
Systematic change, however, will only come through cross-industry collaboration and more importantly, co-creation – whether that’s to make more energy-efficient products, simplify the technology implemented, or introduce better measurement tools and standards. The recapturing, reusing and recycling of products and vital materials, otherwise known as the circular economy, is becoming a major focus area for the whole industry and will require all parties to work together.
Connectivity has already reshaped society in incredible ways. But its true power will be felt over the next decade in the wake of 5G and 6G, with telcos helping to bridge the digital divide so that no one on our planet is left in the dark.
Yet as our dependence on data increases, it’s in everyone’s interest to pay more attention to its direct relationship with climate change. That includes telcos, their suppliers, and consumers too.
People are increasingly likely to think twice about using a disposable cup in 2023, knowing what they know about climate change. We should all be applying the same ethos to our online activities – after all, when the fate of the human race is on the line, emptying your spam file once a week isn’t such a big ask.
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