Telcos are responsible for 1.6% of total global CO2 emissions and are therefore stepping up initiatives to limit their environmental impact. This competitive ecosystem already cooperates to a certain extent on other standards and is now collaborating on finding global solutions.
Overall, the ICT sector is responsible for 3 to 4% of carbon emissions worldwide.
The worst of the impacts are mainly linked to device manufacturing (TVs, computer screens etc.), accounting for 79% in France, followed by data centers at 16% and networks at 5%, according to a 2022 study by ADEME and Arcep.
If nothing is done to reduce this carbon footprint, emissions will continue to rise exponentially. In France, the increase would be more than 60% by 2040 according to Arcep. Rapid climate change is prompting telecoms operators to unite.
The GSMA mobile operator alliance has been working on climate issues since COP21, which was held in Paris in 2015. It started by encouraging each operator to set targets to reduce carbon emissions, and then reported a combined goal of achieving Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2050. Each operator is free to set more ambitious targets, which is why Orange has committed to becoming Net Zero Carbon by 2040.
How are we making it easier to collaborate?
From the outset, the telecoms sector was built on technical interoperability between operators. In our business, it is natural to discuss and collaborate on network operations. We did it to achieve 4G, 5G... We are also doing it to make progress on network energy efficiency,
Strategy, Architecture and Standardization Director
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions effectively, it’s essential to know how to measure them and share measurement methods. All operators agree on measuring the carbon footprint of direct emissions (coming from operator itself, such as network efficiency). Each operator is free to implement their own modeling standards, but joint actions are carried out, such standardizing 5G’s default sleep mode. In addition, a common methodology is under discussion within the GSMA to measure all indirect CO2 emissions throughout the value chain, upstream by suppliers and downstream by customers.
In the same vein, the GSMA also defines common KPIs (key performance indicators) in terms of ESG (environment, social, and governance). These indicators make it easier to report and consolidate operators’ results on important issues such as digital inclusion, recycling, waste reduction, and working conditions. This is complementary to the JAC’s approach (Joint Audit Co-operation for CSR), an association of 25 fixed and mobile operators which, since 2010, has been auditing device and equipment manufacturers on the basis of ESG criteria.
Circular economy: a strategic requirement for the ecosystem
The circular economy is also a key subject for the telecoms industry because the greatest environmental impact comes from mobile device and network equipment manufacturing. Driven in part by market expectations, a new model is emerging around eco-design. The aim is to design more sustainable products that incorporate recycled materials, extend the product lifecycle, improve waste sorting and recycling, promote responsible equipment consumption, and raise awareness among consumers. Before the end of the year, the GSMA will publish a white paper offering further device recommendations to operators.
With Orange playing a leading role, the GSMA has already published a strategy paper on network equipment in March 2022. It aims to unite its 22 member operators, share best practices, and commit to common goals in terms of the circular economy. This is a first step towards the birth of a real market for second-hand network equipment.
Over time, these initiatives will have a positive impact on CO2 emissions, waste management, and reducing the natural resources (metals, rare earths, water, etc.) needed to manufacture new equipment.
OSCAR: best practices that can be shared
Many operators such as Telefónica and Vodafone have supported the circular economy for several years and Orange is no different, rolling out its own OSCAR program in 2020. Since then, this innovative tool has enabled 26 Group subsidiaries in Europe and Africa to buy and sell their used network equipment internally.
Leveraging the value of second-hand equipment implies a radical transformation of procurement and network management processes. Many technical, practical, legal, and sometimes psychological barriers need to be removed. This approach also presupposes collaboration with network equipment suppliers, which is why we’re working with Nokia, Ericsson, and other manufacturers within our OSCAR program on a catalog of refurbished, tested, and guaranteed equipment alongside new equipment.
"Mass adoption of the circular economy is a long-term job. We must succeed in changing two things: our processes within the global digital ecosystem, in order to resell second-hand equipment more easily, and the behavior of our engineers, our buyers, and our customers, so that they upgrade their equipment less often."
- Thierry Barba, Ecosystems Development Director, Orange
"Each year, to keep up with technological developments and spectrum allocations, operators seem condemned to buying new equipment. But in reality, existing hardware is often fully functional. This is why we must develop a second-hand market and promote this quality equipment."
- Bernardo Scammacca, Director of Supplier Performance Monitoring, Orange
The circular economy is now central to product design. Our two strategic pillars are to extend the lifespan of products via our new ‘Refurbished Network Equipment’ offer and to deploy the most innovative and energy-efficient solutions (hardware, software, standards, operations). We’re happy to partner with Orange on the OSCAR program. By reusing equipment and avoiding precious metal extraction, manufacturing, and assembly of new products, we're finding a major source of carbon savings.
Director of Innovation and Strategy
Today, OSCAR is considering opening its refurbished equipment market to one or two other pilot operators to help them make progress on this crucial subject.
Eco Rating: coordinated data that can help consumer decision-making
A few years ago, each operator used its own indicator to qualify the environmental footprint of the devices it sold, with Telefónica, Vodafone, Orange and others all having their own label. This made it hard for customers to compare the environmental impact of smartphones between operators.
To address this problem and standardize the information made available to customers, five operators are collaborating within an Eco Rating consortium. With an overall score and five sub-criteria clearly displayed on device specification (durability, repairability, recyclability, resource efficiency, and climate efficiency), the label provides simple and coordinated data that can be used in stores and online.
As co-founder of the consortium, Vodafone launched an Eco Rating in 13 countries including the UK, Turkey, and South Africa. During COP26 in November 2021, it encouraged all smartphone operators and manufacturers to join the label.
It was paramount for Vodafone and other operators to work together to offer consumers a single, harmonized scoring and labelling scheme that can be used by as many operators and phone vendors as possible. It would have confused our customers if each operator had their own or used a different methodology to assess devices. It’s a significant achievement for the environment given how competitive our industry is globally.
Principal Quality & Compliance Manager
"The more the initiative grows, and the more customers express their interest, the more operators take the plunge and join the Eco Rating initiative. Among the Eco Rating partner manufacturers, Fairphone is an example of a very committed manufacturer, which has been active since the pilot phase. Everyone wants to improve their device scores." - Bruno Sciboz, Eco Rating Technology Manager, Orange
Operators who wish to join the initiative sign a license agreement. Eco Rating also puts pressure on smartphone manufacturers to reduce the environmental impact of their products. Today, 18 manufacturers support the Eco Rating initiative, which represents a major part of the market.
On a global (GSMA, ITU, etc.) or more limited (Eco Rating) scale, these initiatives show that collaboration in the telco ecosystem is underway. Strengthening cooperation will help the sector to continue to find solutions to reduce its environmental footprint.