The 5G network is arriving in a world which is, for myriad reasons, at a critical juncture. And whilst COVID-19, the US elections and the re-framing of the European Union are currently dominating the headlines, perhaps the more profound and existential issue is that of the environment.

Technology is already playing a crucial role in reducing global carbon emissions, from increasingly efficient solar cells to sophisticated demand-side management of power supplies. But with the introduction of 5G a host of new opportunities are expected to emerge which may help the planet rediscover its environmental equilibrium. We are proud that members of the

FreeMove Alliance are at the forefront of efforts to explore and exploit these opportunities through partnerships with some of the world’s most progressive and forward-thinking organisations.

As ever though, there are two sides to the story. Just as the production of zero-emission electric vehicles requires the controversial mining of rare-earth metals, 5G also presents certain environmental challenges of its own which will need to be carefully managed.

Use of 5G to monitor of Baltic Sea algae

5G connections have proved instrumental in monitoring and providing real-time insights into environmental conditions in the Baltic Sea. Blue-green algae is toxic, and flourishes when water is unexpectedly warm. These changes were monitored with a drone and computer vision in a trial in Kirkkonummi, Finland, with high-resolution video transmitted over 5G for real-time analysis. The same technique can be used to track the spread of plastic waste or locate oil leaks, enabling quick decisions to mitigate against environmental hazards.

Janne Koistinen, 5G Program Lead at Telia Finland, commented “5G’s low latency and high capacity has transformed video analytics in industrial solutions, and is well-suited for drone management and communication. The pilot has demonstrated the enormous potential for 5G to drive collaboration and address society’s needs.”

How 5G can help agriculture and food production

5G has the potential to increase the efficiency of water use in crop irrigation thanks to the use of smart agricultural sensors. These can monitor factors such as meteorological data and the existing level of soil moisture in order to optimise crop irrigation, making it less water-intensive.

The same systems can also monitor other factors such as soil nutrients, the presence of pests, or when a plant is beginning to wilt, allowing farmers to make better informed decisions on managing their harvests.

Further down the supply chain 5G has the potential to drastically reduce food waste while also making the industry safer, more transparent, and more accountable. This includes the tagging of where food is produced, when its ingredients were harvested, or even the identity of a specific piece of livestock. And within food production facilities 5G can be used to support networks of sensors which monitor everything from compliance with regulations to the supply, storage, and packaging of ingredients.

How 5G and the IoT can reduce the carbon footprint

5G sensors can enable a power supply to an individual device to be based on its specific need, and switched off when not required. This is already gaining popularity in the area of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning). The same principles can be applied in transportation systems such as smart motorways, and public utilities such as street lighting.

5G is also becoming an increasingly important tool in providing energy failover solutions such as automatically bringing micro-grids online when needed. This enables better and more intelligent integration of energy produced from fossil fuels and energy from renewable sources.

Powering the 5G network itself

Whilst the overall energy consumption calculations are complex due to the number of network components affected by 5G, and the impact of possible future changes in user behaviour which are touched on below, ITU standards have called for 5G to require much less energy to run than 4G. It is expected that the new technology will reduce overall network energy consumption by a factor of between 10 and 20.

Potential environmental risks posed by 5G

For each 5G application with the potential to reduce waste in areas such as energy and food production, there are others which risk having the opposite effect. Like its predecessor, 5G is expected to generate massive amounts of additional data, for example within the fields of entertainment, AI, and AR. Storage of this data is highly energy-intensive, accounting for around 80% of network energy use, half of this in cooling alone.

E-waste

As 4G handsets become replaced by 5G, there is a significant risk that without accessible and generous buy-back programmes, many handsets may enter the waste-stream. The increasing influence of the circular economy movement may eventually help mitigate the effects of this, but even at a best-case only around 80% of a handset can be fully recycled.

A bright future. An exciting opportunity.

Since the conception of 5G technology, members of the FreeMove Alliance have been working to ensure that it is introduced responsibly and with a focus on minimising its environmental impact. We believe it represents an extraordinary opportunity to help reverse the tide on carbon emissions, and develop creative solutions to key environmental challenges. We are currently exploring a number of truly ground-breaking initiatives and partnerships which we look forward to sharing in the near future.