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Green mobile networks? Challenges and opportunities for environmentally friendly telecommunications

In an era of increasing connectivity and digital transformation, the mobile industry is ubiquitous, influencing every aspect of our lives. But as the industry continues to grow, it also poses a growing burden on our environment. In this paper, we will address the pressing question: How can mobile networks be made more sustainable and environmentally friendly?

What are the challenges?

  • Energy consumption: The operation of mobile communications networks is energy-intensive, in particular due to the operation of base stations, data centers and network infrastructures. It is estimated that the mobile industry is responsible for about 1% of global electricity consumption, contributing to significant CO2 emissions and thus climate change. According to the Ericsson Mobility Report (2021), energy consumption will continue to increase due to the rise of 5G networks and the growth of the industry.
  • Resource consumption: the production of mobile devices and infrastructures requires the mining and use of valuable and limited resources, such as rare earths, metals and plastics. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), this leads to environmental pollution, habitat destruction, and social conflict in mining areas. In addition, some of these resources, such as coltan and tantalum, are found in conflict regions such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, raising the question of ethical resource extraction.
  • Electronic waste: the constant upgrading of mobile devices and network infrastructures leads to the generation of large amounts of electronic waste. The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 study estimates that approximately 53.6 million tons of e-waste were generated globally in 2019, with the mobile sector accounting for a significant portion of this. Improper disposal of such waste can lead to environmental pollution and health problems, especially in developing countries where recycling infrastructure is inadequate.

Opportunities for environmentally friendly telecommunications:

  • Energy efficiency: implementing energy-efficient technologies and architectures can reduce the energy consumption of mobile networks. Examples include massive MIMO antenna systems and small-cell architectures that reduce energy consumption in 5G networks. In addition, advanced network management and load balancing algorithms can further optimize energy consumption. Research by Nokia Bell Labs has shown that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can reduce network energy consumption by up to 30%.
  • Renewable energy: mobile operators can reduce their carbon footprint by using renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or hydroelectric power to run their networks. Many companies have already started to run their networks on renewable energy and have set targets to fully switch to renewable energy. For example, Vodafone has set a goal to power 100% of its global networks with renewable energy by 2025.
  • Circular economy and recycling: Applying the principles of circular economy and introducing recycling programs for mobile devices and network infrastructures can help reduce resource consumption and the amount of electronic waste. Reusing and recycling valuable materials from end-of-life devices can reduce both the amount of raw materials needed and the environmental impact of waste. Apple is an example of a company that uses recycling robots to recover valuable materials from old iPhones and use them in new devices.
  • Sustainable devices and packaging: Mobile manufacturers can develop more sustainable devices by using materials with lower environmental impact, increasing device longevity, and promoting repair-friendly designs. In addition, using eco-friendly packaging can further reduce the environmental footprint. Fairphone is an example of a company that makes modular and sustainable cell phones that can be easily repaired and upgraded.
  • Awareness and regulation: raising awareness among consumers and businesses about the environmental impact of the mobile industry is critical to encouraging sustainable practices. Governments and regulators can steer the industry toward sustainability by introducing environmental standards and incentives for green practices.


The mobile industry faces significant challenges in terms of environmental impact and resource consumption

However, by implementing energy-efficient technologies, using renewable energy, promoting the circular economy, developing sustainable devices and raising public awareness, significant progress can be made towards green mobile networks. It is time for the industry to recognize its environmental responsibility and work with governments, regulators and consumers to implement sustainable solutions that minimize the environmental footprint of telecommunications.

The future of the wireless industry must be based on the principles of sustainability and environmental protection to meet global challenges such as climate change and resource scarcity. By working together, all stakeholders – from manufacturers to network operators to consumers – can develop and implement innovative solutions that both protect the environment and meet the growing demand for connectivity.

In the coming years, technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and ongoing digitization will lead to a further increase in data traffic and mobile infrastructure requirements in almost all industries. It is therefore critical that the mobile industry proactively pursue sustainable solutions to meet these challenges and support the shift towards a greener future.

Switching to green mobile networks may require investment and effort in the short term, but the long-term benefits far outweigh the costs. Not only the environment, but also the competitiveness of the industry and the well-being of society as a whole will benefit.

With this in mind, it is important that we as consumers, businesses and policy makers are aware of the need for a sustainable mobile industry and take action to promote and support green mobile networks. This can be done, for example, by making conscious purchasing decisions, demanding environmentally friendly products and practices, or supporting policy initiatives aimed at sustainability and environmental protection.

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to lead the mobile industry on the path to a greener future – a future where connectivity and environmental protection go hand in hand and where the telecommunications industry contributes to a more sustainable planet.