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Sci Tech    H1'ed 10/1/21

Energy policies in the hyperconnected era

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Energy policies in the hyperconnected era 5G's environmental paradox

by Miguel Coma

In order to sustain itself and thrive, the mobile industry needs new markets1. Promoting 5G, the fifth generation of wireless technology, is one current focus for development.

Consumers now expect mobile phone and Internet service everywhere, 24/7. The industry claims that 5G will pave broadband highways for our ever-increasing data traffic at faster speed. It claims that 5G will reduce carbon emissions.

Are these claims true? Before we deploy 5G, don't we need to evaluate its environmental footprint and sustainability with due diligence?

During this time of limited resources, what's necessary?

5G provides very low latency and high reliability. It's great for improving productivity and agility in very large manufacturing plants. 5G could dramatically improve machine-to-machine communications in refineries, tobacco processors, and factories2 that assemble motor vehicles. However, none of these industries requires large-scale, public 5G networks. Private, on-site 5G networks will dowhile they also provide manufacturers increased security and control.

Even mobile operators admit that 5G will not change anything in consumers' daily lives.3 Customer surveys and analysts4 have demonstrated that 4G can provide for all current and foreseeable uses.

5G will not solve "white spots" either, those areas where signals are poor or non-existent. (Anyway, we should preserve white spots to shelter wildlife, children and people whose health deteriorates from exposure to electromagnetic radiation transmitted by mobile infrastructure).

Last but not least, claims that 5G will reduce carbon emissions is a myth that completely contradicts unprecedented predictions in energy usage compared to past generations.

Energy to feed the digital world

The digital information-communication-technologies (ICT) industry already emits three percent of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), making its footprint much higher than aviation's two percent of global GHG emissions. The figure below shows Huawei consultant Anders Andrae's estimates of the digital world's current electricity consumption5. From left to right, it shows consumption for networks, user devices and data centres. Each bar has two parts: the lower part shows the sector's embodied energy (consumed to manufacture the device or the infrastructure equipment). The upper part shows how much energy devices and infrastructure consume during operation.

Networks (in blue) comprise 4G and emerging 5G networks: they already consume substantial amounts of energy. The largest part of today's energy use goes to operating user devices (in green). However, complex user devices such as smartphones and laptops consume eighty percent of their lifetime energy use before they are switched on for the first time. The graph averages energy use for all devices, including less complex ones such as TVs or printers. Data centres (in grey) are surprisingly ICT's smallest energy consumers. Still, over 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity is no small sneeze. It's enough to power over twenty million households in developed countries. The ICT industry's current total energy use could power over 200 million households in developed countries.

The rebound effect of 5G

The industry claims that 5G will reduce energy consumption. But actually, it will provide a perfect example of the Jevons Paradox, also called "the rebound effect:" increased efficiency actually increases energy use. Because of 5G, the mobile industry expects an explosion in mobile data traffic (and production of new devices and infrastructure) at a scale far beyond any improvements that energy efficiency can claim. 5G's clear improvements in energy efficiency will therefore fail to reduce overall global energy consumption. 5G will add to global energy use.

The graph below shows Andrae's forecast of all networks' electricity consumption for the coming decade. Mobile networks would become the #1-energy guzzler, using more energy than wired and Wi-Fi networks.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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