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5G Will Pave Way to Net Zero, Mobile Networks Say

Ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, the UK’s mobile operators say their next-generation networks will help slash emissions in manufacturing, utilities, transportation, and agriculture, accelerating the journey to net zero.

A new report from Mobile UK, the trade body for the sector, is urging policymakers to act now to enable the quicker deployment of 5G mobile networks and reap their environmental benefits.

Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications at Mobile UK, said: “Our report highlights the crucial role that 5G and wider mobile connectivity will have in assisting our efforts to mitigate climate change. 

“What is important is that governments recognise this early and work with industry to enable the rapid deployment of 5G and mobile networks. By doing so we will be in a stronger position to realise our goals more quickly.”

5G mobile networks, which UK operators started switching on in the spring of 2019, have more bandwidth compared to the previous 3G and 4G networks, enabling faster downloads and more connections. 5G networks make futuristic technologies like the Internet of Things—a menagerie of physical options with tech capabilities—and telematics feasible in everyday life. 

These technologies can be harnessed to boost resource and energy efficiency in manufacturing, logistics and agriculture, curbing carbon emissions and other impacts on the environment.

Mobile UK claims that smart technology, undermined by 5G, could help G7 manufacturing sectors to cut their emissions by 1% during the period 2020-2035. This reduction, the equivalent of 182 Metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), is around 75% of the annual carbon emissions of France.

5G could also optimise our energy systems for the heavy use of renewables, with connectivity allowing the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data about energy demand, network capability and storage capacity. Connected solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries can be deployed to store surplus electricity and discharge it back to the grid when needed, providing crucial balancing. Mobile UK says that research shows 5G networks can thus reduce energy sector emissions by 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent between 2020 and 2030.

In the transport sector, one of the UK’s most polluting, accounting for 22% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 5G connectivity can decrease surface emissions by 7%. For example, 5G-connected infrastructure, like dynamically controlled intersections, can streamline traffic and reduce delays, cutting fuel use by 13-44%.

Agriculture is another heavily polluting sector, responsible for 10% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government's independent climate change advisors, calculates that emissions from climate change will have to fall by more than a third (36%) for net zero to be feasible. 5G-connected equipment can deliver cuts of 1MtCO2e in the sector by 2030.

This will be achieved through 5G-connected sensors that collect information on key agricultural variables, including temperature and moisture, while autonomous tractors plough fields and drones can spray crops more efficiently and without the need for manual control. Some deployments of this technology may seem bizarre—including new wearable mobile-connected technology for cows that reduce methane emissions from their nostrils—but can deliver valuable carbon savings at scale.

Furthermore, 5G networks themselves are more energy-efficient than the 3G and 4G, previous networks still live, using less energy to transmit more data. For example, 4G uses one kilowatt-hour of electricity to download 300 high-definition movies, while 5G can download 5,000 HD films with the same energy. A recent trial by Vodafone has shown that the use of new equipment can even further reduce energy use by 5G networks—by 43% on average and 55% at off-peak times.

The deployment of 5G will allow networks to shut off the even less efficient, slower 3G networks and devote their bandwidth to 5G. By January 2023, every major US mobile carrier will have switched off their 3G networks.

EE is the first UK network to announce a similar shutdown: it will wind down its 3G network by 2023. The switch-off will help EE owner the BT Group meet its net-zero target date of 2030.

While mobile networks are pressing ahead with the deployment of 5G, governments need to develop regulatory frameworks that facilitate this rollout, Mobile UK says. It’s lobbying the government to reform the Permitted Development Rights regime, ensure all Local Development Plans reference the importance of mobile infrastructure for economic development and social inclusion, and introduce business rates relief for new mobile infrastructure development, especially in hard to reach areas.

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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