The mobile and telecommunications industry is particularly well positioned to lead the way in implementing the transformational changes on the road to net-zero, and there is widespread recognition and the outspoken desire for green transformation across the sector. A recent study of more than 2,500 telco companies conducted by UK telco Vodafone acknowledged that, “the issue of climate change has become much more significant and urgent in recent years. The public have become more vocal about it, regulation has increased and businesses are being more proactive about making sustainability a core part of their credentials . ” In UK BT, aims to be net zero carbon emissions for its own operations by 2030 and achieve the net zero target by 2040. Its science-based targets are in line with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Vodafone is committed to reducing our total global carbon emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2040. Other UK operators are looking to achieve similar targets.
However, the industry still has significant challenges to overcome if it is to meaningfully tackle the issue of climate change. Every new generation of telecom network technology has represented a significant spike in energy demand, and 5G looks to be no exception if novel approaches to deploying, operating and managing network are not rapidly developed and implemented. This growing energy challenge is, in large measure, a result of the exponential growth in traffic that new 5G services are likely to deliver, especially in new sectors such as automotive, energy and manufacturing on top of voice, video, data and AR/VR. Although the 5G radio standard is theoretically up to 90%, more energy efficient per gigabyte than are the 4G standards, the proposed 5G use cases and new spectrum bands will require many more mobile sites, hence potentially outstripping potential energy efficiencies. Flattening the energy curve created by 5G adoption is an essential goal if telecom companies want to effect real sustainable change. On the other hand, the impending 5G rollout offers an opportunity to rethink how to build, operate and manage networks in a smarter and strategic way. For example by using energy saving software and the Low Energy Scheduler Solution, Ericsson, for example, claims that that that operators can reduce radio equipment energy consumption by up to 15% by using AI-driven energy saving software and the Low Energy Scheduler Solution which will put the RAN (Radio Access Networks) equipment where most of the energy is consumed, into sleep mode when not in use. Matching the theoretical and real-world performance of 5G has been demonstrated in a joint study between Telefonica and Nokia. Focusing on the power consumption of the 5G RAN (Radio over three months, the research found Telefonica’s 5G network is up to 90 per cent more energy efficient per unit of traffic than legacy networks .
Although the mobile sector is at the very forefront of taking action to be net zero by 2050, this is not the biggest contribution the sector can make to climate action. The biggest potential is to help other sectors of the economy reduce their carbon emissions through digitisation and “smartisation” Research conducted by the GSMA with the Carbon Trust in 2019 found  it enables carbon reductions in other sectors that are 10 times larger, equivalent to approximately 4 per cent of global emissions. These reductions are from two mobile technologies: (1) Smartphone users and (2) Smart connected IoT devices. Based on current projections for the increase in smartphone users and the rise in smart connected IoT devices, this enablement effect could double by 2025.However, this will require innovation and investment across sectors to accelerate digital transformation to support decarbonisation.
A powerful example is in the energy sector. Most electricity grids are heavily centralised with many large-scale energy-generation facilities, often powered by coal, gas or nuclear energy. These are largely analogue-controlled, with facilities brought online manually at times of peak demand. Achieving net zero will require widespread renewable energy use, which will be decentralised and mean buildings are no longer just consumers of energy, but also producers: prosumers. Prosumers will need to more closely manage the supply of, and demand for, energy. Renewable energy may be reliable and predictable, but it is not always available. It will need to be managed with battery storage and by smoothing the energy demand curve. Central to this will be mobile connectivity, along with cloud services and application platforms to create smart energy systems. Research conducted in 2021 by the GSMA with specialist energy consultancy Rethink Research found  that smart energy systems could prevent an overbuild of capacity worth 16,000 terawatt hours of annual generation which, based on today’s electricity prices, could save $1.9 trillion per year by 2050. More importantly, compared to today’s energy mix, it could save 7.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to more than 23 per cent of global decarbonisation.
 Mobile Net Zero, State of the Industry on Climate Action, GSMA, 2021 https://www.gsma.com/betterfuture/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Mobile-Net-Zero-State-of-the-Industry-on-Climate-Action.pdf