UK’s copper infrastructure puts technology expansion at odds with climate goals

The exponential growth of smart, connected systems in the UK could restrict national efforts to lower emissions, due to a reliance on a copper-based digital infrastructure that has reached its "physical and technological limits", a new Carbon Smart report has found.

The new report, published in partnership with CityFibre, recognises that an expansion of digital services in areas such as transport, energy, construction and health an education could reduce global emissions by 18%. However, the UK’s legacy infrastructure, which consists of 97% copper networks, is far more carbon intensive that alternative solutions, severely limiting progress on climate goals, according to the report.

Carbon Smart’s managing director Ben Murray said: “The science behind climate change and the potential impacts it will have is settled. If we don’t act, the consequences will be severe. We need to rapidly transition from old technologies and ways of working to more sustainable business practices, solutions and economies. As this study shows, full fibre infrastructure has a critical role to play – the environmental, social, economic and technological benefits are clear – and without it, our ability to build a sustainable future is in doubt.”

ICT-enabled solutions have the potential to reduce global emissions by 9.1 gigtaonnes of Co2e by 2020 and by 1.5 gigatonnes in Europe. The UK’s Industrial Strategy recognises technological advancements as a key area of growth, but the report calls for infrastructure to be upgraded to ensure growth doesn’t come at a risk to the UK’s carbon budgets.

Full Fibre-to-the-Home

According to the report, the UK should transition to Full Fibre-to-the-Home (FFTH) infrastructure, which is less carbon intensive across a lifecycle analysis. The report notes that the extraction of 2kg copper ore needed to produce a 200-foot length of wire would produce around 1,000 kgCO2e. In comparison, fibre optic cabling would produce less than 0.01% of the emissions associated with copper.

Around 75 million miles of copper would need to be replaced in the UK, but the report notes that full fibre is the “only viable infrastructure technology that can support the vast expansion of ICT-enabled solutions”.

As well as being lighter, full fibre is easier to manufacture, transport, install and maintain, all of which help with the environmental performance over a lifecycle analysis. Back in 2008, PwC found that a lifecycle assessment of an FFTH network would be “environmentally positive” within 15 years of installation.

As well as delivering on climate goals, technology expansion is viewed as a critical enabler for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A host of technology frontrunners including Microsoft, BT and Verizon all urged countries to accelerate the uptake of digital technology, claiming that smart solutions and the Internet of Things (IoT) would be “indispensable” to achieving the 17 SDGs.

Matt Mace

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