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Climate change: My responsibility or yours?

Climate change was, of course, top of the agenda at last week’s World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, with politicians, activists, entrepreneurs and scientists alike all lending their opinion on how to – and even whether we need to – save our beautiful planet. The on-going jousting between Donald Trump and green activist Greta Thunberg perfectly – and somewhat unpleasantly – reflecting the polarity of each argument.

Businesses were also keen to share their opinion. Coca-Cola, the world’s largest single-use plastic polluter (200,000 bottles a minute), said that consumers still wanted plastic bottles so they had to “accommodate” them. Consumers still demand lightweight, resealable plastic packaging, the company noted. The only compromise Coca-Cola made was that it would transition to use recyclable plastic in 50 per cent of its packaging by 2030.

But is that really enough? And, perhaps more importantly, is it the ‘fault’ of the consumer? A recent BBC documentary by naturalist Chris Packham noted that, if everyone on the planet consumed on average the same amount [of everything] as a UK citizen, we would need an “extra” Earth just to remain sustainable in future – furthermore, based on the current average consumption of an individual in the US, we would need five additional Earths.

One of the biggest elements of consumption from a technological perspective, Packham noted in the programme, is of course the rare metals used to build today’s mobile devices, from smartphones to laptops, and the resources and chemicals needed to manufacture them.

On top of that, our ‘throwaway’ culture does not repair such devices. Once they reach ‘end of life’, we simply buy a new one. The telecoms industry has much work to do here if it is to take its own share of climate action responsibility.

[Perhaps, it could insist on only using suppliers that manufacture sustainable devices. Of course, this sounds like a pipe dream. But it shows very clearly not only how far we have to go to achieve technological sustainability, but also the levels of commitment and financial motivation required to get there.]

However, there are some green shoots. Ericsson announced in Davos that it is one of the partners behind the first ever business ‘playbook’ for climate action. The book, launched at the forum, provides a framework for businesses to create strategies aimed at stabilising the Earth’s temperature to a rise of 1.5°C.

In order to achieve this, says the book, greenhouse gases need to stop increasing in 2020 (this year!), and halve every decade until 2050 in order to reach ‘net-zero’. It also calls for simultaneous action to remove carbon that has already been emitted. It notes that meeting the target will require “the fastest economic and societal transition in history” – but, it suggests, that is achievable.

It’s also worth looking at the 2019 GSMA Mobile Industry Impact Report, which calculated the contribution of the mobile industry to all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over the previous year, noting that mobile technology and connectivity has transformed the lives of billions of people around the world – for the better.

“Our new flagship report presents a wealth of evidence to demonstrate how mobile is delivering the SDGs by reducing poverty, improving healthcare and education, and driving sustainable economic growth,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA, on publication of last year’s report.

This progress is a result of mobile broadband being built to cover 90 per cent of the world’s population and connecting more than 5 billion people worldwide and the report even notes mobility’s positive contribution to water sanitation. Clearly connecting people improves their lives.

At the same time, the study highlights the mobile industry’s role in addressing environmental and climate change challenges, as a result of digital solutions that reduce energy, travel and transport use.

However, this is still at odds with the bigger picture of ‘excess consumption’. We have every kind of mobile device in the developed world that we care to own. So, who are we to say that everybody else on the planet does not deserve the same? Which, of course, means more consumption.

Furthermore, 5G networks are likely to boost technological consumption even more ­– new devices, more base stations, and more energy required to power the 5G networks… not to mention IoT and connected vehicles. Fortunately, there are novel solutions emerging. For example, IES from our friends at Elisa Automate uses AI algorithms to optimise 5G base station energy consumption, which is a significant cost centre for operators.

However, technological innovation alone is not likely to be sufficient, and it’s time we all asked ourselves some awkward questions. Is it my responsibility as an individual to consume less technology? Or is it the responsibility of industry to ensure that the technology we do consume is created sustainably? Or is it something that should be led by Government? But, most importantly, are any of us really doing enough to significantly shift the ‘status quo’ of excess consumption? At the moment, it seems not.