The phenomenal growth in internet traffic has critical implications for the climate. Efficiency gains are outpaced by the increased energy consumption by an unprecedented number of new devices, applications and networks. Resource demands and energy consumption are rising from the unchecked growth of the information and communication industry.
The Shift Project found that the share of ICT in global greenhouse gas emissions has dramatically increased.
“Behind each byte we have mining and metal processing, oil extraction and petrochemicals, manufacturing and intermediate transports, public works (to bury the cables) and power generation with coal and gas. As a result, the carbon footprint of the global digital system is already 4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s energy consumption rises by 9% per year.”Jean-Marc Jancovici, President of The Shift Project, member of the French High Climate Council.
Despite claims that 5G is a tool to fight climate change, industry reports repeatedly document that energy efficiency gains have not been met. The reality is that the 5G “ecosystem” is energy intensive. Reports caution that the 5G networks will see a drastic increase in power requirements by 2030 due to the energy demands of powerful network elements like massive MIMO and edge servers, the proliferation of 5G cell sites and the “energy hungry” network elements.
In 2020, the High Council for the Climate (HCC) in France released their report which found that 5G technology will lead to a significant increase in the carbon footprint of digital technology. The HCC issued five recommendations including clarifying climate issues before deploying new technologies, such as 5G, imposing carbon footprint limits on phone operators deploying 5G and better informing the public about waste or disproportionate use of energy associated with digital services.
A 2022 literature review by the University of Sussex Business School on the energy use of 5G concluded that the notion that 5G is green technology is not backed by a transparent evidence base. The literature review examined the whole network level assessments of the operational energy use implications of 5G, the embodied energy use associated with 5G, and indirect energy use effects associated with 5G-driven changes in user behavior and patterns of consumption and production in other sectors. The authors state that the widespread adoption of unlimited data subscriptions for 5G users, VR and mobile gaming could “encourage energy-intensive user practices, contribute to ever-growing levels of data traffic, and counteract the energy-saving potential of 5G efficiency improvements.”
They also found that current studies into 5G energy use fail to properly account for:
- the impact of the embodied energy associated with network infrastructure and user devices
- direct rebound effects associated with 5G-driven changes in mobile device user behaviour
- wider indirect energy use effects, including the scope for 5G to enable energy savings in other areas of economic and social life (so-called ‘enablement effects’)
There are solutions. Rather than everything wireless, wired connections can be prioritized for internet connections, as wired ethernet consumes less energy than Wi-Fi networks.
Research that evaluated the cradle to grave environmental impacts of Wi-Fi access points compared to ethernet connections finds that the energy consumption as well as CO2 emissions are generally higher for Wi-Fi access points.
The German Environment Agency found HD-quality video streaming produces different levels of greenhouse gas emissions depending on the transmission technology. They found that the lowest CO2 emissions are produced when HD video is streamed at home over a fibre optic connection in comparison to streaming using mobile networks.