If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that modern society would have had a much tougher time coping during a global pandemic if it weren’t for technology. In the US alone, individual broadband use has increased 3 gigabytes since the start of the pandemic, and without the internet many of us wouldn’t have been able to buy groceries, work, educate our children, get healthcare, or access entertainment. The health and safety of us all relies on the dependability of the network, and the demand for fast, reliable communication has made it clear that the adoption of 5G and IoT technologies will be critical going forward – but what impact will they have on the environment?

As 5G networks are rolled out, the benefits will be enormous across any number of sectors. An article from Atlantic Magazine – Can 5G save the planet? – describes how international standards for 5G call for reduced energy use, when compared to 4G networks. The goal is to ‘use less power to transmit more data, decreasing the wattage required for each bit of internet traffic’ – something that could be a gamechanger when it comes to environmental impact. That said, there are potentially both positive and negative factors when it comes to 5G and carbon emissions, but because the technology is so complex, there are no simple answers.

There are, of course, any number of steps that that can be taken to offset any negative impact 5G might have on the environment, including decarbonization, biodegradable sensors, more efficient cooling, recycling toxic materials, and network sharing. And there are signs that 5G will support efficiencies across many industries that will lead to the reduction of fossil fuel usage and the resulting carbon emissions. When it comes to IoT technology, we already know it enables things like smart lighting, and has a significant impact on water usage, with sensors monitoring the entire water cycle, from sourcing to treatment to delivery to consumption.

Now, if we marry 5G technology with IoT, there are any number of opportunities to protect the environment, including increased energy efficiency, reduction of greenhouse gases, and the enablement of great use of renewable energy. Furthermore, 5G and IoT will give all infrastructure-related systems, from garbage collection and electrical grids to water and heating systems, an unprecedented level of data access and transparency, which in turn will help reduce air and water pollution, minimize water and food waste, and protect wildlife, while also giving us a greater understanding of weather, agriculture, pests, industry, waste reduction. And all of this will mean overall efficiency and better and faster decision-making.

Reduced energy consumption & emissions

Through the use of 5G-enabled IoT sensors, transportation networks, buildings, factories, streetlights, homes, and a whole lot more will be able to monitor and analyze energy needs and consumption in real time, resulting in optimized energy usage. Devices will be able to power up and shut down automatically, cutting energy usage. Already, smart meters installed in New York City’s Empire State Building have been able to cut energy costs by roughly 38%, while General Electric has been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for having the world’s most efficient combined-cycle power plant, based on an achieved efficiency rate of more than 62%. And saving energy means you are also cutting greenhouse gas emissions; a study by Ericsson projects that IoT could cut carbon emissions by 2030.

And as we either continue to work remotely or move to a hybrid model, energy is saved, and emissions are reduced due to less commuting and business travel. If travel is necessary, time, fuel, and emissions can be cut by reducing traffic congestion through the use of 5G-enabled sensors and cameras, which monitor in real-time and change traffic lights or perform other actions.

Reduced water & food waste

Water is a limited resource – just 3% of the world’s water is fresh, and only two-thirds of that is accessible, so without improved water management strategies, people around the world could be facing shortages of clean, safe water as early as 2025.

Many of the applications and improvements that 5G will bring will be related to any any device that can be connected to a sensor and thus provide data. 5G technology will mean the ability to connect thousands of devices with robust and reliable connections, and IoT-specific technology such as LTE-M will mean reduced battery consumption. If we look at this from a water conservation perspective, thousands of smart water sensors will be able to detect leaks, water pollution, and contamination, as well as rising water levels in sewage systems and natural bodies of water. This is great news, because in the US alone households waste more than 3 trillion liters of water annually due to leaks alone. Additionally, sensors are already being used to monitor temperatures in lakes, rivers, oceans and other bodies of water, which means quicker action can be taken when rising levels are shown. In other words, when water temperatures rise, marine species and ecosystems can be under threat – and early intervention can make all the difference.

In agriculture, where a variety of factors already negatively impact the industry, the mass deployment of sensors can not only optimize water usage, sensors can also be utilized to monitor and better understand the health of soil, weather patterns, crop conditions, pests, nutrients, and a host of other factors in order to not just improve yield and use of resources, but to also cut back on the use of dangerous chemicals. And with the UN estimating that about one-third of food produced globally going to waste, sensors being used to detect both freshness and spoilage is a big step towards bringing that number down. Sensors can also be used to track the entire food chain, as well as monitor conditions in factories to assess quality and regulatory compliance. All of this reduces food waste, saves on resources, maximizes safety, and allows a faster and more agile response along the entire supply chain.

Network efficiency

The migration from 3G and 4G to 5G will lead to greater efficiency of transmissions. One study, from the University of Zurich and Empa, analyzed the impact of 5G on the emissions of greenhouse gases. They concluded that by 2030, the 5G network should cause around 85% fewer emissions per unit of data transported than today’s mobile networks. Additionally, indirect savings from new uses will come from things like smart grids or targeted use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture. And the faster, more reliable, and much larger data transmissions combined with the efficiency of the 5G network will support flexible working and virtual collaboration, thus reducing traffic on our roads and business travel.

There are myriad other ways 5G and IoT will support a more sustainable society, and because 5G is so new, the possibilities are not all known. And while there are concerns about negative impacts, Tele2 has committed to being a leader in sustainability and is the first climate neutral telco in the Nordics and Baltics.

If you would like to learn more about how 5G and IoT can enable your business, please get in touch.