person holding green leaf plant

Going green: Could 5G breathe new life into the planet? (Pexels)

Worries around a potential surge in e-waste and energy demand might dampen the enthusiasm of 5G’s rollout – however, experts are optimistic

The advent of fifth-generation wireless technology for digital cellular networks has sparked much excitement, but while 5G is likely to upgrade our lives in the digital era has there been enough thought about what impact it might have on the environment?

Wild coronavirus conspiracy theories aside, consider that by the end of 2025, 5G will attract 2.6 billion subscriptions, generating 45 per cent of the world’s total mobile traffic data, according to the Ericsson Mobility Report 2019, published by the telecommunications giant in November. Further, by stretching to cover to 65 per cent of the globe’s population in just a handful of years, 5G is likely to become the fastest-developing mobile communication technology ever rolled out. 

Such a speedy achievement might not be cause for celebration, though – especially in such times of heightened climate awareness. It would be fascinating to know what 17-year-old Greta Thunberg – the eco-activist phenomenon, coincidentally born in Stockholm, where Ericsson has its headquarters – thinks about 5G.

Indeed, a new study from the GSM Association – an organisation that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide – shows that the telecoms industry currently consumes around 3 per cent of global energy. That figure is likely to skyrocket in the coming weeks and months. “The onset and rollout of 5G globally could result in a potential increase in data traffic of up to 1,000-times more,” says Per Lindberg, chief executive at Ranplan Wireless. “Additionally, the infrastructure to cope with the 5G era could arguably consume up to three times as much energy.”

Other mind-boggling numbers about 5G’s energy consumption abound. A study published last spring by Vertiv and technology analyst firm 451 Research calculates that network energy consumption could rise by 170 per cent by 2026 – and 90 per cent of operators have expressed worries. In 10 years, IT will consume one-fifth of all global electricity, the study projects.


“With the expansion of 5G comes the issue of increased energy consumption and emissions, particularly as government bodies in the European Union are taking a clear stand towards sustainability goals,” admits Niclas Sanfridsson, Chief Executive of Colt Data Centre Services.” Once the infrastructure is in place, though, many industry experts are confident that 5G will significantly improve energy efficiency. 

Mr Sandfirdsson continues: “Ultimately, the formula to sustainability is a simple one – how can we, as data centre providers, use less power to achieve the same results? The solution lies in leveraging hybrid energy solutions. Batteries and storage solutions that contain as much energy as possible as a backup in case of grid failure of a lack of renewable energy. This also opens up the possibility of data centre operators generating their own power, taking pressure off the national grid and further boosting sustainability goals.”

Mark Skilton, Professor of Practice in Information Systems and Management at Warwick Business School, is even more assertive. “Technology can enable 5G to own the green revolution, because of the nature of the increased speed in data sensors that will create an effective real-time system,” he says.

“We will see radical new business models emerge for how everything from streetlights, home heating to energy and water consumption is monitored and managed. These innovative models will move away from the slow process control and poor visibility and often no tracking of consumption that we currently have.”

Prof Skilton indicates research from Enzen Global, a smart energy consultancy, has found that smart sensor networks can upgrade various green efficiencies – including water-leak detection and pollution-level monitoring. He suggests that “5G will be able to turn off inactive systems or optimise water consumption to provide a better balance of demand and supply. Today this simply is not possible without the investment and specialised networks that make wide-scale use of the Internet of Things (IoT) affordable.”


Regu Ayyaswamy, Senior Vice President IoT and Engineering and Industrial Services and Tata Consultancy Services, continues this theme. “The integration of 5G into IoT services is a win-win scenario for organisations and consumers alike,” he says. “Thanks to 5G’s ability to enable faster and energy-efficient data transfer, devices will spend less energy to communicate. 

“With ‘energy-aware’ features such as ‘wake up on receive’, new 5G enabled mechanisms can preserve context and connect easily when required, to bring to life inactive edge equipment when it is needed, rather than leaving them always-on expending unnecessary energy. 

“The proliferation of 5G IoT devices will transform the way edge and network infrastructure will operate and interact with each other in an energy-efficient and sustainable manner.”

Chris Penrose, Senior Vice President of AT&T Advanced Solutions agrees that “a faster, more efficient network can help companies achieve their environmental goals”. He reasons: “That’s because the speed of 5G can help enable greater visibility to monitor equipment and infrastructure, as well as allow for more active management of resources such as electricity, fuel, water and raw materials.”

Maybe Miss Turnberg and fellow eco-activists ought to be celebrating about the rollout of 5G, after all?