The Growth in Global Telecom GHG Emissions

Vertatique strives to cover the CT, as well as the IT, in Green ICT, with attention to networking, broadcast, telephony, and other communications infrastructure elements. Our latest update to this post looks at GHG emission from various segments of mobile telecommunications: network access services, device charging, and industry supply chain.

Wireless access technologies are one segment. An April 2013 report from the Center for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) cites the explosive growth on one communications sector -- wireless connectivity to cloud services-- driving " increase in carbon footprint from 6 megatonnes of CO2 in 2012 to up to 30 megatonnes of CO2 in 2015, the equivalent of adding 4.9 million cars to the roads. Up to 90% [of the underlying energy] consumption is attributable to wireless access network technologies, data centres account for only 9%"

Device charging is another source of GHG emissions. A July 2014 report from Juniper Research says that "...charging mobile devices will generate more than 13 megatonnes CO2e (CO2 equivalent) of greenhouse gases per annum globally by 2019, against an anticipated 6.4 megatonnes this year."

The Jupiter report goes on to note that "Supply chain emissions still remain a huge problem for the industry. If suppliers can be incentivised to change now, the industry could save a potential 57.8 megatonnes in GHG emissions by 2019." Jupiter's How Green is My Mobile whitepaper projects 2019 mobile device supply chain emissions to reach 115.5 megatons CO2e. The paper assigns over three-quarters of these to the raw materials and component stages, highlighting the need for device manufactures to reach deep into their supply chains to realize GHG reductions.

Original 2010 post

Even before the smartphone explosion, the IEEE's GreenCom'09 conference noted: "Data rates in wired and wireless networks are driven by "Moore's Law" and are thus rising by a factor of roughly 10 every 5 years. The price paid for this enormous growth is a doubling of the power consumption in cellular networks infrastructure (base stations and core network) every 4-5 years - to 60 TWh (billion kWh) in 2007." Doubling of power consumption often means a doubling of GHG emissions.

A 2008 report Smart 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age highlights the consequences: telecoms emissions have grown from 151 MtCO2e in 2002 to 293 MtCO2e in 2007 and are expected to reach 349 MtCO2e in 2020. Greenpeace's 2010 Making IT Green report applies a more recent telecom growth factor from Gartner to the Smart 2020 data to derive a 501 MtCO2e estimate for 2020, 44% greater than the earlier Smart 2020 estimate.

The Smart 2020 report gives these breakdowns of the relative contributions to the total telecom CO2e cloud by various elements, now and in the future. Note that mobile will become the largest contributor and broadband will experience the the largest growth unless aggressive green ICT programs are implemented now by manufacturers, service providers, and users.

Note that these estimates do not include the CO2e from the ever-expanding cloud of applications and services which these infrastructures and devices access. The Greenpeace report, again working with Smart 2020 numbers, puts current and future data center CO2e at about the same levels as the total telecoms emissions.

2007 2020
Mobile 43% 51%
Fixed Narrowband 42% 20%
Telecom Devices 12% 15%
Broadband 3% 14%

Service contribution to total telecom CO2e - Smart 2020

Both the Smart 2020 and the Greenpeace estimates may be low. As reported in 2009 by IEEE Spectrum, ABI Research forecasts that total mobile cloud subscribers, estimated at 71 million worldwide in 2009, will grow to 998 million by 2014. That a 1400% increase in just 5 years! Spectrum puts it this way, "By 2014, cellphones and other mobile devices will send and receive more data each month than they did in all of 2008."

Carbon and Computers in Australia, commissioned and published by the Australian Computer Society, ranks the "Telecoms Network Infrastructure" sector as the #1 contributor (8.6%) to the nation's total ICT emissions. Combined with "Information Media and Telecommunications" (1.6%), the entire communications industry accounts for over 10% of all ICT emissions. (Note that this is by industry sector, not by gear type. Servers, PCs, and output devices (printers, etc.) each contribute more emissions than communications gear.

Learn more about telecom and networking's Green ICT challenges and opportunities from our posts tagged with "comm".