Erik Ekudden, Ericsson Group CTO and Head of Technology & Strategy explains How Digitalization with 5G enables further acceleration of climate action

By Erik Ekudden

Digital technology may be our most powerful, scalable tool to tackle climate change. With 2020 showing digitalization can be rapidly accelerated, the same will be true when it comes to CO2 reductions. 5G opens up these new opportunities – why not use it to reach our goals faster?

With a clear challenge in global energy consumption, effects of CO2 pollution, and inefficient use of resources we need to turn to those enabling technologies that can drive change fastest. To stabilize climate change, we need to hold Earth’s temperature at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This means we need to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net zero before 2050.

Even with last year’s Covid-19 driven reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – the greatest since World War II – the world is still forecast to miss its annual target of reducing emissions.

The world requires larger, more positive transformational changes than a pandemic to address climate change and meet its targets. At the same time, as we progress into 2021 and 2030 edges closer, the need for fast, scalable change only grows.

Digitalization is an enabling technology representing a fast, scalable tool to help address climate change. Indeed, digital technology may be the most powerful, scalable tool the world has to tackle climate change. As an accelerator, it has the potential to reduce global emissions by up to 15 percent by 2030.

According to McKinsey, enterprise leaders have seen the Covid-19 crisis bring about some three to four years of digital change in the space of only a few months.  In some cases, the move to digital products and channels has been accelerated by a staggering seven years. Given the investments made and expectation that changes will be long-lasting, there exists for many sectors of society a corresponding opportunity to hasten the advance of digitalization and meet 2030 CO2 milestones sooner. This hastening would be welcomed given the scale of the challenge at hand and consequences of climate change.

5G’s unique transformative capabilities

On the frontline of digitalization lies 5G, itself an exponential technology, a platform enabling technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and Extended Reality (XR). Through these technologies, enterprises can build all-manner of known and future unknown, disruptive uses.

The uses, applicable across various sectors, can drive down costs, energy usage, emissions, waste and mitigate climate change. Perhaps the most obvious use during Covid-19 has been video conferencing and telemedicine in employment and health sectors, which negated travel.

The Exponential Roadmap, revised in January 2020 prior to Covid-19’s onset, shows from now until 2030, sector by sector, the solutions to be taken to help the sectors halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The Roadmap, of which Ericsson is the leading business sector partner, is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global average temperature “well below 2°C” and aiming for 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Across sectors, including those highlighted below which might be ripe for acceleration, the Exponential Roadmap puts forward concrete solutions to meet 2030 targets. Technology lies at the heart of many of the solutions. Their deployment, however, requires policies, finance and leadership to see them realized at sufficient speed and scale.

If we establish 5G infrastructure faster, we can help halve emissions across sectors. 5G is an innovation platform which can support a myriad of uses that can help tackle climate change.

Exponential Roadmap: Solutions to cut greenhouse gas emissions in industry, buildings, transport and energy

The solutions are not hypothetical, they just need to be scaled up. Looking at energy, when it comes to enabling the transition to renewable sources, investment in the smart grids of tomorrow is necessary. ICT and connectivity can enable better performance and protect power grids, including the possibility of remote control and automation in the event of power failure. This is key in enabling the transition to renewable energy, and where the UN estimates that up to 85 percent of electricity must be renewable by 2050.

Taking steps in energy will impact the emissions of other sectors too, where the Exponential Roadmap finds around a third of industry emissions relates to energy supply, rising to two thirds in buildings, for example.

Under transport it is reasonable to assume that the solution ‘remote working and meetings’ will hit its estimated target well before 2030, given the rampant uptake of teleconferencing this past year. Ericsson’s trial last year of 5G driverless vehicles and 5G uses at the Port of Livorno, are also instructive.

In industry, is it not possible to act faster and bring forward increases in production efficiency and circularity? We know digital technologies will be an essential driver of decarbonization and cost savings in material, energy, process and logistical efficiency.

In buildings, such as Ericsson’s Smart 5G Factory launched last year, we see uses such as energy monitoring and management shave 5 percent off the energy bill, whilst environmental monitoring can lead to a 5 percent reduction in waste. All told the factory is 24 percent more energy efficient than baseline. Is it then possible to speed up the transition to sustainable buildings, both residential, non-residential and construction? Can we hit the sector’s reductions before 2030?

Collective major leaps

I believe the potential is there to meet 2030 milestones sooner. It would require a major, collective leap led from industries and investors, but strongly supported from society at large, where governments, academia and others pull together.

From an industry perspective, telecommunications companies need to lead by action. For Ericsson, this means supporting the Paris Agreement, the Science Based Target Initiative, driving changes through our supply chain. It also means, as a lead partner of the Exponential Roadmap, working towards the ambition of halving our emissions before 2030, aiming at net zero before 2050. In addition, it means showing the art of what’s possible, through research, proofs of concept and working case studies, such as the Port of Livorno, Smart 5G Factory and many other projects. More than anything, our main contribution is taking forward networks that society can utilize to help tackle climate change. The networks themselves are designed with energy efficiency in mind. If 5G were deployed the same way as previous generations to meeting growing traffic demands, energy consumptions of mobile networks would increase dramatically. This is why we break the rising energy curve of the networks through, for example, energy-saving software and placing equipment with precision.

For society to take a great leap, however, requires more than a willing industry and exponential technologies like 5G. It requires other leadership – not least governmental – as well as policies and incentives to deliver digitalization now, paving the way for the necessary reductions well before 2030.

Governmental leaps

A critical ingredient to deploying the 5G network is an investment friendly environment. In concrete terms, this means governments removing barriers to 5G deployment such as fast-tracking permits, lowering site costs and setting fees that cover only administrative costs. It also means freeing up or finding sites for equipment, which is an issue across the Americas and Europe.

In addition to deployment, it means releasing 5G spectrum quickly, with supply maximized and assigned in a manner that incentives wide and rapid deployment. In Europe, for example, only 25.5 percent of 5G spectrum has been released to member states. The slow release is, in large part, due to a near-sighted focus on gathering industry fees and taxations, rather than harnessing the overwhelming long-term benefits – financial, societal, environmental – of releasing spectrum sooner and getting enterprises up and running on 5G quicker. Since 2000, European operators have spent EUR160bn on spectrum fees which could have covered the EUR155bn investment shortfall the European Commission calculates is needed to meet its 2025 connectivity targets.

There are best practices to learn from. Austria, for example, in their recent multi-band spectrum auction, used additional coverage obligation discounts to drive down costs. Total proceeds were 20 percent lower than the expected minimum, representing a trade-off value of EUR500m. Critically however, 1,700 undeserved communities will now get 5G. The auction was designed to secure coverage, not only for a high percentage of the population but also highways, roads and railway routes.

The positive environmental impacts in those communities and along transport and infrastructure routes will be felt for years to come. This shows that the much-needed green transition can be accelerated by governments if an investment friendly climate for digital infrastructure is provided.

The learnings from 2020 tell us that digitalization, underpinned by mobile network services and cloud technologies, can be accelerated by years. Across many sectors of society, the same will be true when it comes to CO2 reductions. 5G opens up these new opportunities – why not use it to reach our goals faster? I challenge governments and our sector to join me in this critical ambition.

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