Our blog

Stop e-wasting our sector’s time for positive ESG action

It’s been estimated that data centres account for 2% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions; you may have seen the recent Panorama on how the cloud is a really bad idea when it comes to climate change.

Oh, those naughty IT people. For sure they are--but keep the smug feeling in check: our sector is just as bad a GHG culprit. GSMA says the telecoms industry uses 2% to 3% of humanity's total power consumption: global call volumes lead to more and more demand for the data storage those diesel-powered data centres are powering; telecommunications companies are responsible for up to 40% of all the ICT sector’s combined emissions, with most of our carbon footprint comes from the networks, both fixed and mobile.

So much for the problem. What are we doing about it? Well, we aren’t short of ideas or proposals. Upgrading to more efficient routers, switches, and servers can significantly reduce power consumption; we could do more on optimising data centres energy sourcing (hydrogen, anyone?) and their efficiency. We could have way more solar panels on top of all our buildings, and we could start pushing power suppliers that guarantee renewable energy in the mix to the top of the contract pile; there’s huge scope for us all doing better on e-waste management to ensure proper disposal and recycling of discarded electronic and communications equipment and handsets. There’s nothing stopping us consciously sourcing more kit and materials from environmentally responsible vendors, promoting recycling and reusing of components, and keeping packaging waste to an absolute, recyclable minimum.

Good ideas—but there’s just not enough implementation thereof. Basically, we've been fudging around this topic for too long. There have been many initiatives, but not enough that are industrywide. Yes, GSMA has its ClimateTech idea, but the needle really isn’t moving anything like fast enough.

This doesn’t make sense for saving the planet, but it also doesn’t make sense for us commercially. Flooding, freezing and other extreme weather events can damage core telecom nodes at any moment and have the potential to cause huge connectivity issues; the 2021 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) Technical Report warns of damage to operator assets, power failures, and poorer overall delivery due to heavy rainfall or temperature extremes and fluctuations.

The same study is careful to say that we’re at the thin edge of the wedge here, pointing out that between 2016 and 2017, only 1% (five out of 648) of incidents were caused by severe weather like flooding, storms or snow. But as we race carelessly into our 1.5C future, this situation simply won’t last, but in the interim S&P does point out that if rising temperatures won’t physically affect your fibre right now, your perceived indifference to the ESG values your customers hold will (‘social exposures stemming from consumer behaviour, social cohesion and safety management risks’).

‘Vendors will increasingly be assessed for their compatibility with the operator's own Green/ESG initiatives’

This makes the recent publication of The Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) 'Green Future Networks: KPIs and Target Values for Green Network Assessment' all that more relevant.

This is a resource for showing how operators can better measure, report, track, and act on their environmental and energy footprints while maintaining high service quality for end users. Its preferred methodology is to ask us all to start thinking about practical tools like Environmental but also Energy and Quality of Experience KPIs, with the body arguing that the industry should strive to develop and adopt KPIs that allow a higher level of granularity of reporting.

For example, allowing operators to drill-down on the specific issues such as energy use in each part of the network (mobile, fixed, core)—and ideally, at least for internal assessment, to the level of specific geographies and sites. 

It would be useful to define and adopt structured and evolving reporting standards to facilitate the evaluation of the KPIs in an automated manner. After all, as the document states, the right KPIs are essential in terms of both “enabling operators to measure their progress against their sustainability goals” and to “act where needed to ensure they remain on target”.

The Alliance calls out the value of GSMA’s already-existing mobile sector ESG KPIs, as well as others like ABI Research’s work on the problem and more, like GlobalData’s--and the lead here was, of course, provided a while back by the ITU in any case. Several of the KPIs considered are already widely used in the industry, but by synthesising all this the document (which we highly recommend studying), real progress has been made on these vital but thorny issues, and this thought leadership is much to be welcomed.

For instance, the guidance usefully focuses on just two main KPI categories (or “pillars,” in its terminology): environmental KPIs (including waste generation and recycling activities, KPIs that account for the long-term strategy of a company to operate with Net Zero emissions, and “circular economy” efforts) and what it dubs “Energy & Quality of Experience” ones, such as the total energy and electricity used by an operator, as well as the efficiency and intensity of its usage.

Examples in the first pillar include a commitment to reduce your Scope 1 and 2 emissions as an operator to near zero by 2025, while a second pillar KPI could be a full report on the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of all the data centres you work with—but only if the company-wide value can be reported.

A useful set of guideposts

We expect that at least some of these KPIs will shortly end up in vendor RFIs / RFPs, as they present such a useful level playing field for judging supply chain effectiveness on combating these problems (along the lines of Scope 3 reporting). Why: vendors will increasingly be assessed for their compatibility with the operator's own Green/ESG initiatives, who will be using the same frameworks to make benchmarking as easy as possible (and hence, more rapidly progress their Green work).

Why not start your own Green Transition journey by looking at these ideas—and turn all those good ideas into some decarbonised telco ecosystem reality?