Scorching heatwaves, devastating flo­ods, severe storms and increased dro­u­ghts have amplified the need for industries across the globe to undertake climate action. The global telecom industry has realised this dire need and is continuously marching towards setting and achieving net zero targets.

Telecom operators’ growing ambition to tackle climate change is visible through their bold net zero targets. Overall, the global mobile industry has set a target of becoming net zero in terms of carbon emissions by 2050. According to the GSMA, as of June 2023, 62 operators, representing 61 per cent of the industry by revenue and 46 per cent by connections, have committed to a science-based target of rapidly decreasing their direct and indirect emissions by 2030. Further, certain telecom operators have also committed to net zero targets by 2050 or earlier, accounting for 39 per cent of the mobile connections and 43 per cent of the global revenue.

Additionally, the telecom industry continues to lead on transparency and ac­countability, with five global telecom op­e­rators – Proximus, TDC, Tele2, Tele­fónica and T-Mobile US – being among the first companies in the world to have their targets verified against the new Net Zero Corporate Standard.

Regional dynamics

As far as regional progress on climate ac­ti­on is concerned, telecom operators in Eu­ro­pe and North America are making the biggest strides. Telcos in these regions have been witnessing a fall in direct (Scopes 1 and 2) emi­ssions per connection since 2022. Fur­ther, absolute emissions are plateauing. Th­is reflects that operators are expanding their energy efficiency programmes and sharply increasing access to renewable electricity.

According to the GSMA, 24 per cent of the electricity used by global operators in 2022 was from renewable sources, up from 18 per cent in 2021 and 14 per cent in 2020. European operators are purchasing the highest share of renewable electricity at more than 80 per cent on an average, with Nor­th American operators currently buying ar­ound half of that. However, they are ex­pected to close the gap with new renewable energy purchasing contracts. In other global regions, the picture is mixed. While there are strong levels of ambition, there are also challenges such as access to renewable sources and political constraints that make the shift harder.

Formation of climate action task force

An important step towards promoting collaboration in terms of the industry’s net zero ambitions was undertaken in 2019 by the GSMA through the creation of a climate action task force.

The task force has four main purposes:

  • To promote and encourage leadership on climate action to move the industry to­w­ar­ds net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
  • To agree to climate policy frameworks and advocacy engagement to gain support from governments and other stakeholders for a fair and equitable net zero transition.
  • To share best practices on climate acti­on, so that operators support each other and raise their ambitions.
  • To create thought leadership and rese­arch on how mobile technologies support climate change mitigation and ad­aptation.

The task force aims to strengthen collaboration among global operators and has grown rapidly over the past three years. It now has 62 members, with networks in most countries around the world.

Emissions scenario

Despite growing data traffic requirements and ongoing transition to 5G networks, key large-scale global operators including AT&T, Verizon, Vodafone and Orange reduced their Scopes 1 and 2 carbon emissions per connection in 2022. This was due to two main factors, that is, 5G being more energy efficient at moving data com­pared to long term evolution (LTE) and larger investments being undertaken in lower carbon energy to power networ­ks, such as onsite and market-based rene­wable electricity.

Today, data traffic continues to grow exponentially, with an average 5G customer using around 30 GB per month – a rise of 4-5x compared to LTE networks. However, while the rising traffic can inc­re­ase pressure on energy consumption, the reality is more nuanced because 5G workloads are increasingly being shifted to the cloud, where operators lease data centre capacity from hyperscalers such as Ama­zon and Microsoft, thereby turning Scope 1 emissions to Scope 3 emissions.

Indian telcos step up climate action

In line with the global telcos, Indian telcos too have been stepping up their efforts towards reducing carbon emissi­ons. For instance, Bharti Airtel has committed to reducing absolute Scopes 1 and 2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50.2 per cent by financial year 2031, star­ting from financial year 2021. It has also committed to reducing absolute Scope 3 GHG emissions by 42 per cent during the same time frame.

Further, in line with its green initiatives, Airtel commissioned a captive solar power plant in 2021 to meet the energy needs of its core and edge data centres in Uttar Pra­desh. Moreover, Airtel’s data centre subsi­diary, Nxtra Data partnered with Bloom Energy to install low environmental impact fuel cells at its data centre in Karnataka to reduce carbon emissions through a cleaner, hydrogen-ready fuel supply.

Meanwhile, Reliance Jio has turned all its monopole design towers green and is using renewable energy. Further, Jio calculates its Scope 3 emissions, which accounted for 4.55 million tonnes of carbon dioxide CO2 in financial year 2021-22. The telco has also been able to reduce 51,574 tonnes of CO2 emissions by pro­cu­ring power from renewable sources. Addi­tionally, Jio has put in place certain energy-saving systems that ensure that it has one of the lowest carbon intensities per TB of data usage compared to other service providers.

State-run telco Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has also installed solar-powered telecom towers in some areas.

Ushering in energy efficiency

Another factor contributing to the move towards cleaner and more energy-efficient solutions in telecom has been the rapid rise in global energy prices since 2022. In this regard, the industry seems to be moving towards renewable energy solutions such as solar photovoltaic, wind power, fuel cells, hybrid power systems and battery technologies (lead acid, nickel-based, lithium-ion, etc.). Energy-efficient technologies such as active distributed antenna systems and sleep mode base transceiver stations are also available. Several telcos are also installing fuel cells as a standalone solution to replace diesel generators. As the cost of these solutions gradually starts decreasing and awareness towards them starts increasing, the industry is expected to scale up their adoption in the coming years.

Shaping a greener, better connected future

As the global telecom industry continues to tackle climate change, there are certain issues that need to be ironed out. For ins­tance, one of the key challenges faced whi­le decarbonising the sector is limited acc­ess to renewable electricity as operators’ demand is outstripping supply at present. Further, renewable energy solutions are not always feasible or price competitive because of a lack of sunlight, infrequent wind, or the need for expensive battery storage solutions.

To address these issues, the global mobile industry needs to work together to develop progressive policies, build conducive regulatory environments to promote decarbonisation and learn lessons from the front runners in this do­main. Further, energy market innovation, and collaboration between governments and the private sector are needed to accelerate the transition to clean energy. This would help in creating a greener, more sustainable and better connected world.

Kuhu Singh Abbhi