The Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) has been analyzing the energy consumption of the ICT industry since 2007. CEO Luis Neves was a panelist at Developing Telecoms’ recent panel discussion, Making 5G Sustainable.
GeSI’s leading report, Smart 2020, is released every three years and seeks to examine three main issues: the global energy consumption of the entire industry, enabling capacity, and business value. Over the years, the results have shown that while energy consumption is increasing overall, the ICT industry’s consumption is growing a lot less than global emissions.
Neves notes however, that this does not mean that the ICT industry can ignore the issue of energy consumption. He believes companies must look into all possibilities to reduce energy use by, for example using renewable energy and investing in renewables to make their operations more efficient.
Together with the GSMA and the ITU, GeSI was involved in the development of some of the methodology around the science-based targets for reducing energy consumption. The groups agreed on a pathway to 2050 that could achieve the 1.5 degree target.
However, Neves acknowledges that their planning only focused on Scope One and Scope Two emissions, rather than Scope Three. This is important because most companies’ Scope Three emissions are roughly equivalent to Scope One and Scope Two combined.
As a result, if Scope Three emissions are not addressed it presents an inaccurate portrayal of the state of emissions across the ICT industry: “We need to be serious, and we need to be clear about what we are talking about - this is not about reducing our own energy consumption or costs in our operations, it’s about how we address the overall challenge in the supply chain component as well. [This amounts to] two thirds of the total energy consumption of any company so the conversation needs to embrace all these components for us to be understood as credible organizations, and as a credible industry.”
During the panel discussion Neves acknowledged that companies are reporting emissions to the CDP but went on to say that greater disclosure is required, and that the statements being issued must be monitored so that the companies making them can be held accountable for their pledges. He also stated that a lack of oversight in this area is exacerbating the problem: “Last year, we did our digital purpose report around the same three questions, but larger in scope. We looked to seven disruptive technologies - 5G, blockchain, virtual reality and so on - and we put them into perspective of the 17 development goals of the UN by 2030.
Neves believes the ICT industry must act to resolve negative trends, collaborating to ensure they are reversed through innovative solutions. Additionally, the positive trends must be enhanced by deploying more technology, connecting more people, and providing everybody with the opportunity to get online.
“The world will continue to grow – the question is, how can the industry make this growth process sustainable? ICT needs to ensure that the planet remains in its boundaries and that people have more access to communications, and can take advantage and benefit of the whole potential that these technologies can offer to the world.”
“As we engage in a discussion about sustainability, we get 5G, 6G or whatever to come, but the main point here is that energy consumption will increase with more technology deployment, but the benefit of that will be that we will enable every single industry sector to become more and more efficient. So in our report, the factor was 1 to 10 – we can reduce 20% of global emission in other industry sectors, so there is a benefit of deploying technology, and I think this is where the conversation should go. We should do this in a very honest and transparent manner.”
Neves believes this is happening, pointing to his tenure as the chief climate protection officer of Deutsche Telekom. He notes that the operator had a complete infrastructure around its energy consumption in all departments, with targets for network infrastructure, data centers, fleet services and buildings.
The goal was to reduce costs in the company, and it had a ten year plan which Neves is certain will still be in place, not least because plenty of other telecommunications companies, whether fixed or mobile, are doing the same work, and engaging in partnerships. He notes that GeSI works with the GSMA, sharing information and research to keep track of energy consumption and its associated costs.
Neves also highlighted that sectors the telecommunications industry serves such as energy, manufacturing and agriculture need to address energy use in connection with communications. He believes there are many efficiencies to be achieved within the sectors which telecoms as an industry needs to measure and explain the benefits as this is a unique selling point for the sector. Better communication is also relevant to policy makers who sometimes view the telecoms sector as a double-edged sword – Neves argues that the industry’s influence can be entirely positive if we take the right steps.
One particular area in which Neves calls for clear accountability is the issue of resource consumption. Describing it as a critical area, he notes that the industry must reckon with how this is managed: “From a societal perspective, minerals are not infinite; they will come to an end, and if we rely on that then we are endangering our own business. The concept of innovations around circularity, disposal of electronic waste, using mechanisms to recover things from devices – all these discussions need to take place, and they’re becoming more serious every day as we increase connectivity and bring more people online.”
Neves notes that as an innovation leader the telecoms industry has the capacity to reverse these trends. The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined that the telecoms sector is the backbone of society, argues Neves, and the industry must use its position to innovate in order to address the negative aspects of energy consumption and turn them into positives.