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New research: more connectivity and less energy consumption

Experts have long tried to understand whether the increased digitalization of societies will lead to drastically higher levels of energy consumption, with some arguing that the ICT industry’s environmental footprint is bound to increase at the same rate as the rapidly growing data volume. Happily, our growing body of research continues to show that this is not the case.

Earlier this year KTH Royal Institute of Technology published a report called ‘The electricity consumption and operational carbon emissions of ICT network operators 2010–2015’, which presents the latest findings in a long-term research collaboration between Telia and Ericsson within the frame of the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) at KTH. The research project was based on a unique data set with measured data from ten operators with operations in about 30 countries participating in the study (including Telia). The results show an approximately linear increase trend in annual electricity consumption and operational carbon emission that is more related to subscriber growth, which clearly indicates that the ever-increasing data traffic in ICT networks is not a catalyst for a corresponding rise in energy consumption of ICT network operators.

The case of Sweden

Back in 2016, we carried out another joint study with Telia. That study was more limited in terms of geography as it focused on Sweden, but it was wider in scope as it included the overall ICT sector, including user devices and data centers. It showed that despite a continuing exponential increase of data traffic, the carbon footprint of ICT in Sweden started to decrease around 2010, after 20 years of constant growth. The study concluded that the total ICT and E&M (entertainment and media) carbon footprint is about 1.9% (1.2% ICT and 0.7% E&M respectively) of Sweden’s total carbon footprint, with a decrease from 2010 of around 10%.

Global context

When we decided to expand the study globally in 2017, we chose as a first step to focus on the ICT network operators, acquiring an extensive amount of measured data about their overall energy use in 2015. After adding complementary, already published, operator data, this unique data set corresponds to 45% of overall global mobile subscriptions and 15% of fixed subscriptions. Using this as a basis, we estimated the overall global emissions. In spite of the very high data traffic growth and a subscription increase from 6.7B to 9.0B, the result shows only a limited increase in annual electricity consumption and operational carbon emission. The increase is associated with the mobile network expansion, since the fixed and broadband levels remain nearly unchanged. Still, the impact per subscription is actually decreasing in most cases.

Key findings:

  • The total annual operational electricity consumption of the overall ICT networks globally is estimated to 242 TWh for 2015 including both grid (215 TWh) and on-site generated electricity (27 TWh). The total corresponds to 1.15% of the total electricity grid supply.
  • The total annual operational carbon emissions of the ICT networks are estimated to 169 Mtonnes CO2e for 2015. This corresponds to 0.53% of the global carbon emissions related to energy (about 32 Gtonnes), or 0.34% of all carbon emissions (about 50 Gtonnes).
  • Between 2010 and 2015 the electricity consumption of the ICT networks grew by 31% from a level of 185 TWh which corresponded to 0.97% of the total electricity grid supply. During the same period the operational carbon emissions grew by 17%. This could be compared to the increase in number of subscriptions from 6.7B to 9.0B during the same period.
  • Per subscription, the average annual operational electricity consumption, including on-site generation, has decreased slightly from 27.6 kWh to 27 kWh per subscription between 2010 and 2015. For the operational carbon emissions, the emissions per user have reduced from 21,5 kg CO2e to 19 kg CO2 The annual emissions per subscriber of 19 kg CO2e corresponds to driving about 100 km on the highway including the fuel supply chain emissions.
  • Seen in the light of earlier estimates this study shows a result which is 24% lower than the operational carbon emissions estimated by the Smarter 2020 report for 2020.

Conclusion

While emissions and energy consumption have increased, our research shows that this is not in relation to data volume but because more and more people are getting a subscription. Despite growing reliance on our smartphones in all aspects of life, we can expect a continuous footprint reduction per subscription as operators increasingly switch over to cleaner energy, and technology overall becomes more energy-effective. In short, the ICT industry works to give us as users more bang per kilowatt-hour every day.

At Ericsson, we believe that it is vitally important that operators and other companies in the ICT industry monitor and disclose the industry’s actual impact on the environment so that we can have conversations based on facts rather than assumptions. Telia is setting a great example in this area, with its long history of making its energy consumption data available. We are very grateful both to Telia and to the other contributing operators for sharing their data to derive the footprint of the global ICT network operators.

As a next step, together with Telia we will present our estimates for the overall global ICT sector at the ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference in Toronto, Canada, in May. Stay tuned for further updates!

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To learn more about Ericsson’s sustainability work, check out our Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility Report 2017 at: www.ericsson.com/sustainability-report

Written by Jens Malmodin

Jens Malmodin joined Ericsson in 1995 to work with environmental issues and life cycle assessments (LCA) at the radio base station basic technology research unit. He has more than 20 years of experience of environmental data reporting on behalf of Ericsson and has also worked with non-environmental tasks at Ericsson including system design and energy efficiency of radio base stations. Since 2007 he has been a member of the Sustainability Research Team at Ericsson Research and he has published a number of papers and articles about LCA of ICT products, systems and services, including studies on the ICT sector level and how ICT can help society reduce its impact on the environment. Jens holds an M.Sc. in material engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden. Since 2007 he has been a member of the Sustainability Research Team at Ericsson Research and has published a number of papers and articles about LCA of ICT products, systems and services. Jens holds an MSc in material engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden.