In the context of the current global health crisis, digital technology is providing solutions for economic recovery and social cohesion. However, the climate crisis has not gone away, and initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint of ICT tools should not take a back seat, far from it. From improving the energy efficiency of networks and data centres to the transition to renewables, eco-design, device recycling and the circular economy… here’s an overview of how telecoms operators are taking climate action around the world.
Each year, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which is a global authority on climate action, evaluates large companies in terms of their environmental performance and transparent communication. In 2019, only 2% of the 8,400 companies assessed worldwide achieved the highest CDP A ranking. Among the telecoms operators, it lists Orange, BT Group, Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica (out of the 50 member companies of the GSMA – the world’s largest mobile operator association – that agree to be audited by the CDP each year).
At the same time, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index ranks companies according to their economic, environmental and social commitments. By analysing the solutions implemented by the most innovative telecoms operators, a few standout initiatives and four major trends have emerged.
Priority given to using renewables to power networks
Digital technology accounts for 3.5% of global CO2 emissions – excluding deforestation and land use changes*.
Telecoms operators are fully aware that they need to reduce the environmental impact of their networks, data centres and technical sites.
* The Energy and Carbon Footprint of the Global ICT and E&M Sectors, J. Malmodin & D. Lundén (2018), Information and Communications Technologies for Sustainability and IAE CO2 emission statistics
Over the past few years, a number of operators have switched to renewables, using a mix of approaches:
- Guarantee of Origin certificates that prove the electricity supplied was produced by a renewable energy source.
- Long-term Purchase Power Agreements (PPAs) signed directly between operators and a renewable energy provider. The six largest contracts signed in 2019 were with companies in the telecoms sector.
- Self-consumption, which enables telecoms operators to consume the electricity they produce themselves (through solar farms for example).
When it comes to renewable energy, KPN is one of the pioneers. On the podium of the DJSI ranking for the past three years, the Dutch operator has been using a 100% renewable energy mix since 2013. BT and Telefonica are also in the running: the British operator is approaching a 100% renewable energy mix by the end of 2020 and the Spanish operator plans to reach 85% by 2025.
Other initiatives take advantage of local energy provision. For example in Switzerland, more than half of Swisscom’s energy consumption is hydraulic and in Thailand, True relies on solar power for its base stations.
Orange Jordan has built its own solar farms, which supply the equivalent of around 70% of the operator’s electricity needs . Three wind and solar PPAs have also been signed by the Group: in France, Spain and Poland. Globally, within five years, renewables will represent more than 50% of the Group’s electricity mix (compared to 26% today).
Improving the energy efficiency of networks and data centres
Beyond their commitment to renewables, telecoms operators are also working to reduce the energy their facilities consume. To offer ever more services to customers while still consuming less energy, there is one recurring approach at the top of the DJSI ranking: energy efficiency programmes.
One innovation having a significant impact is the ambient cooling used by Vodafone in Portugal to save around 35MWh per year in its data centres. Other solutions provide more modest benefits such as Tele2 in Sweden, which switches off power amplifiers during periods of less activity (saving 2.3MWh).
Around 80% of Orange’s energy consumption comes from networks. By 2025, the Group aims to reduce its CO2 emissions by 30% compared to 2015 (scopes 1 and 2).
Decarbonise fleets and buildings
Operators are also stepping up initiatives to reduce their internal consumption.
Most annual reports now cite greater use of electric vehicle fleets.
Indeed Orange has implemented the largest car-sharing company car fleet in Europe and is also switching to electrified vehicles, with a target of reaching 7,000 by 2025.
Encouraging customers to recycle smartphones and electronic devices
According to Alliance française des industries du numérique, 88% of French people upgrade their phone even if it is still in good working order, and on top of that, only 15% of old phones are even collected.
So operators have a role to play in terms of education, raising awareness among customers about how they can be more eco-friendly and use their tech more responsibly, for example through recycling.
In the Netherlands, T-Mobile has launched a commercial offer that enables customers to trade in their old phone to reduce their monthly payments. In Belgium, Proximus recycles smartphones and also offers refurbished phones to schools.
Orange collects used phones in France and Africa in collaboration with the non-profit Emmaüs International. The Group has also switched to an eco-design policy for its own-branded equipment, in particular set-top boxes and routers, which will be 100% eco-designed by 2025.
As a whole, telecommunications is an active sector when it comes to the energy transition. The latest GSMA report on how the mobile industry is meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 13 on Climate Action commits its members to achieve “Net Zero Carbon” by 2050. This is an ambitious but achievable objective, provided it garners support from all industry stakeholders