Cellcos need a climate change plan – GSMA just gave them one

gsma climate change
Image credit: nicostock | Shutterstock.com

The GSMA’s climate change action plan includes transparency and a go-at-you-own-pace ‘decarbonisation pathway’. Will it work? Who knows?

Earlier this week – which just happens to be the week that Greta Thunberg is organizing a worldwide strike this Friday calling for everyone to take real action to combat climate change – the GSMA launched a new initiative that aims to do just that on an industry-wide scale.

Under the first phase of the initiative, over 50 big-name mobile operators – which account for more than two thirds of mobile connections globally – will now “disclose their climate impacts, energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions via the international CDP global disclosure system.” Some of them already do this, but the initiative brings even more operators into the CDP fold.

Phase 2 involves developing a “decarbonisation pathway” for the mobile industry that aims to “provide parameters to accelerate the rate at which mobile operators set their own targets.” The GSMA says this pathway will be aligned with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) framework to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 as per the Paris Agreement. The GSMA aims to have that in place by February 2020, presumably in time for MWC 2020.

And, you know, great. The GSMA has been fairly serious about whipping its members to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in the last few years (climate action is SDG #13), even if it sometimes comes across as a PSA designed to convince regulators to give operators all the tax breaks and go pick on Google for a change. But it’s encouraging that the GSMA is not just trying to convince individual operators to cut back their GHGs emissions, but developing an industry-level framework for all operators to follow.

Tying the initiative to CDP is also a good move. It gives operators a standard way to transparently report their emissions data where the public (and, perhaps more importantly, their investors and competitors) can see them and hold them accountable.

This transparent approach matters because it could encourage operators to take their commitments seriously. A report earlier this year from Greenbiz Research (commissioned by Schneider Electric) on how corporations are addressing climate change found that companies who make a public commitment to climate action are more likely to actually follow through on their strategy.

A whole lotta caveats

The bad news is that even with an industry-side SBTi framework in place, it won’t be easy for many operators to hit their targets. Even the GSMA said in its news release that timescales for hitting targets will vary greatly depending on each operator and the market conditions it faces, to include local policies and access to renewable energy sources, among other things.

The other challenge will be reducing carbon emissions from now to 2050 at a time when operators are expected to be upgrading their networks into SDN-based 5G networks with tens of thousands of new small cells supporting billions of connected IoT devices.

GSMA director-general Mats Granryd isn’t too worried about this. According to a blog post this week, Granryd noted that mobile networks don’t actually use that much power to begin with – they account for just 0.6% of global electricity consumption and 0.2% of global GHG emissions (or 0.4% when you factor in mobile phone use attributable to both manufacturers and users [PDF]). Meanwhile, 5G networks are promised to to be even more energy-efficient than 4G networks.

However, ‘energy-efficient’ doesn’t necessarily mean using less energy than you’re using now. For example, now that data centers have become central to the virtualized digital cloud era that also includes compute-intensive apps like AI and cryptocurrencies, the goal of energy efficiency isn’t carbon reduction but ‘carbon avoidance’, which essentially means the data center’s carbon footprint may get bigger, but not nearly as big as it could be without energy efficiencies in place.

The usual argument in favor of carbon avoidance is that this could be offset by efficiencies the data center enables. Granryd makes a similar point in his blog post, saying mobile in general will enables other industries to reduce their own emissions (energy management for smart buildings, vehicle telematics, telecommuting, etc).

Whether all of that really adds up to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, of course, is an open question. But to be fair, that’s not the GSMA’s problem – the mobile industry can ultimately only be responsible for its own role in the vast global ecosystem. And it has to do it collectively as an industry for it to be more than another empty corporate gesture.

Which is why it’s important that this new climate change initiative is more than just a gesture. We’ve seen so many of them elsewhere. Anyone can announce a climate change plan, but not everyone has the will to execute it and stick with it when it’s a tough year financially, or when a new CEO with an austerity fetish takes over (or worse, one who thinks climate change is a hoax invented by scientists to get more research funding).

The GSMA has a spotty track record when it comes to industry initiatives. Here’s hoping this is one it can get right.

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