Net-zero networks: Can mobile operators decouple growth from emissions?

By 2025, it is estimated that more than 18 billion mobile devices will be in operation

New data released by the sector’s biggest trade body, the GSMA, paints a picture of strong progress in Europe, where member businesses have halved their collective operational emissions since 2019.

2019 was the point at which the Association launched a new industry pledge to net-zero by 2050.

Shortly after launching its landmark pledge, its head of climate Steven Moore tells edie, the GSMA joined CDP’s supply chain programme in a bid to support members to measure and disclose their emissions – something many were doing for the first time.

Moore explains that “a really significant proportion of the industry”, around 70 large businesses, disclosed their climate impacts through CDP in 2023.

“In 2019, we were focused quite heavily on supporting our members to measure and disclose their emissions… and also getting companies across the sector to align their targets with the net-zero by 2050 ambition,” says Moore. “That has been very successful [but] this work is by no means complete. We want to continue expanding disclosure and target-setting. But our focus is now turning more to how we achieve this.”

To that end, the Association has convened a ‘Climate Action Taskforce’ including representatives from more than 65 member businesses who are leading their peers on emissions disclosures and setting verified science-based targets. As well as providing advice within and beyond the Taskforce, members are creating focus groups targeting specific decarbonisation challenges.

These challenges range from transitioning away from diesel generators at off-grid sites, to electrifying fleets, to implementing circular economy practices.

On the latter, Moore reflects on “a growing willingness to work together to increase circularity.”

This is necessary given that 80% of a mobile phone’s lifecycle environmental impact is estimated to be tied into manufacturing.

Circularity conversations, Moore notes, have started to transcend the inclusion of more recycled content in devices and packaging, and move on to how devices can be made to last longer. He elaborates: “We’re in the process of seeing a shift in the mindsets of businesses, from selling as many units as possible, to considering the industry in a slightly different way. In some cases, we need to offer the phone as a service.”

More customers, more carbon?

The GSMA has hosted a vision paper for the circular economy for around 18 months now, providing a “focal point” to this demanding transformation towards an industry without waste.

Just as demanding, if not moreso, will be decoupling growth from emissions in regions where growth is accelerating and access to circular solutions and clean energy is difficult or non-existent.

While the GSMA has tracked a steep decrease in its members’ operational emissions between 2019 and 2022 in regions including Europe (50%) and North and Latin America (20%+), there was a 10% increase in operational emissions from firms in the Asia-Pacific (AIPAC) region within this same timeframe.

Moore acknowledged that reaching net-zero in this region “will be a challenge”.

“What will be key is the move away from coal and towards renewables and, also, away from the use of diesel in off-grid sites or places where the grid isn’t reliable enough,” he says.

“Improving access to renewables is fundamental for operators to meet their climate targets. It’s not a simple task. Every single country’s energy network and energy policies and regulations are slightly different.”

Moore does believe that businesses can play an important role in spurring progressive changes to policy and regulation that can speed and ease the energy transition.

Businesses can coax policy change by either exerting pressure and citing challenges, or showing the positives and practicalities of adoption in other markets, or a mix of these approaches.

Calls to action from network operators can be particularly appealing to policymakers in developing and emerging markets looking to deliver digital access ambitions.

Another key factor, Moore notes, is providing would-be developers of renewable generation capacity with customers that have relatively stable electricity demands. Without “willing off-takers”, there can be no power purchase agreements (PPAs).

According to BloombergNEF, large businesses collectively announced a record 46GW of PPAs in 2023. Growth has largely been concentrated in the US and Europe but is set to be exponential in some AIPAC markets including South Korea in the coming years. Malaysia is also poised for an uplift, with the national government having last year set a more ambitious target to ensure that renewables account for at least 70% of its total energy generation capacity by 2050.

The start of change

Globally, the GSMA has tracked a 6% decrease in global Scope 1 and 2 emissions from members since 2019.

This will need to accelerate to a 7% year-on-year reduction annually for the rest of the 2020s.

Moore says this is possible. He “believes we can see the beginnings of a decoupling” of emissions and growth globally despite the emissions increase in AIPAC, noting a 7% year-on-year increase in global mobile connections in 2023.

Moreover, between 2019 and 2023, data traffic on mobile networks more than doubled.

Moore believes a key factor in decoupling growth and emissions will be next-generation technologies, including improvements to the energy efficiency of 5G and the wide-scale adoption of artificial intelligence to power assets down when not in use.

“There’s a lot more we can do that we haven’t fully exploited yet,” he says.

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