How green is 5G?

A panoply of dazzling new IoT applications is a given, it would seem, with all the potential benefits one might expect from a step-change in wireless connectivity. But what about the environmental footprint? Sally Beare writes.

Phone tower in city

With the plan for connected devices everywhere, internet traffic is set to triple over the next five years.1 Multiple masts and densely-placed small cells will proliferate. A single 5G base station is estimated to guzzle about as much power as 73 typical homes, a threefold increase over 4G.2, 3

Once base stations, data centres and devices are added up, telecommunications could consume over 20% of the world’s electricity by 2025, says Huawei analyst Dr Anders Andrae (compared to approximately 11% currently).4. 5 Compare that with global aviation’s 2.5% share of GHGs: In a worst-case scenario 5G could create almost ten times that by 2030.6,7

‘This is a real concern for 5G,’ says Zach Chang of Huawei.8 Mitigation measures proposed by telcos include improved energy efficiency of base stations9, more efficient cooling systems at base stations and data centres, and a host of other measures that promise to optimise power usage during operation and with the associated power storage and power management. An expected increase in teleconferencing and reduced travel for business can also likely be factored in.

Mobile operators make the case that 5G could help combat climate change, a testimony to which many headlines allude: ‘5G is the Key to Green Recovery’ (Ericsson), ‘5G Power: Creating a green grid’ (Huawei), and ‘Can 5G Save the Planet?’ (Huawei)10-12.
On this topic, legal firm Client Earth and others have voiced concerns about greenwashing.13, 14

As well as, not instead of, 4G
One point that might go unnoticed by the public is that 5G is building on 4G, not replacing it; in fact 4G usage is increasing.15-16 So energy use can surely only grow even if 5G becomes more efficient. It will be impossible, says Andrae, to slow electricity use any time before 2025.18 If we use China as a 5G-rich crystal ball, we see soaring emissions that are not expected to slow before 2035, according to a Greenpeace report.19

Greater efficiency = more use?
Telcos also seemingly ignore Jevon’s paradox, a real-life ‘rebound effect’ in which increased efficiency leads to increased use (see: LED lightbulbs). Mobile industry organisation GSMA warns: ‘The concept of ‘Bit drives Watt’ means that mobile data traffic growth of up to 50% drives an increase in power consumption, despite 5G being more power-efficient on a per-bit basis.’20 And analysts predict that energy efficiency will be outstripped by an expanding market.21, 22

Telco commentators warn that it will take decades for renewables to be a substantial part of the grid.23 The thorny topic of renewables’ carbon neutrality has also been the subject of much commentary of late, with critics citing the environmental impact of resource extraction, manufacture, chemicals, shipping, and batteries.

It would require 18,000 wind turbines to feed the planned 5G antennas, according to engineer Miguel Coma. Furthermore, ‘energy credits’ allow tech giants such as Amazon and Netflix to claim they are using renewables despite their data centres being powered by fossil fuels.24

A battery drain?
Presently, 5G phones run out of battery quickly, which means more charging. Providers have even told users to switch 5G off to save battery life25. ‘I don’t think the carriers really understood… what it’s going to do to battery life,’ says expert James Kimery in tech publication IEEE Spectrum26.

Byte backwash
For true transparency, telcos must factor in the cradle-to-grave carbon footprint of products. ‘Behind each byte we have mining and metal processing, oil extraction and petrochemicals, manufacturing and intermediate transports, public works…and power generation with coal and gas,’ says a French High Climate Council report.27 There is also the backhaul – the ‘veins and arteries’ between base stations – and their increasing data loads to consider.28

And Coma has produced, in a detailed critique of Huawei’s paper ‘Green 5G: Building a Sustainable World’, a surprising bar chart showing that making and using devices has the biggest footprint of all.29, 30

Satellite soot
Part of the 5G plan entails deploying 100,000 satellites, which need to be renewed every five years. As well as irritating weather forecasters and astronomers these deposit black carbon and particles of alumina which are reported to warm the stratosphere and deplete the ozone layer.31

Metals and e-waste
Billions of gadgets and smartphone upgrades will cause an unprecedented demand for rare metals such as lithium which need to be mined, causing local environmental destruction. Producing microchips is wasteful, with 32g of raw materials required per 2G chip.32 Heavy metals from once-loved gizmos leach toxic chemicals and may comprise 70% of US landfill.33

Discarded smartphones produce e-waste equivalent to 400 Eiffel Towers annually, or 4500 towers if you include larger equipment, according to Coma. All that scrap needs to be shipped across the oceans to landfill sites where it leaches toxins such as cadmium.34

Harm to wildlife
Notably absent from telecoms companies’ reports is mention of the effects of wireless radiation on wildlife. A growing body of studies make a persuasive case for a link between increasing levels of non-native RF radiation from 4G and 3G and harm to wildlife, including vital pollinators such as bees.35-38

Or at least, it’s a concern taken sufficiently seriously by The British Ecological Society for them to have identified RFR as one of the top emerging issues that could affect global biological diversity and conservation.39 The Environmental Health Trust has compiled a list of the latest research indicating harm to wildlife from wireless radiation.40

Many species navigate electromagnetically, including birds, so the growing cloud of ‘electrosmog’ – with 5G being the latest addition – greatly concerns some researchers, who suggest it might be the final straw.41 And a study in Nature appeared to show that higher-frequency RFR as used in 5G is more readily-absorbed by insects than lower frequencies.42

Research supports the view that trees and other vegetation are adversely affected by RFR (as well as being threatened with mass felling, since trees block high-frequency signals).43 Even soil microbes are affected, and research also suggests that base stations can turn pathogenic microbes drug-resistant.44

Harmful to humans?
Some of the mirth accruing to the topic during 2020 might be attributable to widespread misconceptions about what constitutes harmful radiation, and a mistaken belief that only heating and ionisation effects are relevant when appraising the biological and health impacts of RFR.

Governments and telecoms companies claim that RFR is safe, yet this is strongly contested by researchers. A 2018 article published in the influential medical journal The Lancet explains that the idea that ‘non-ionising’ radiation is benign is an outdated myth.45

A 2021 piece in the British Medical Journal calls for a halt to the 5G rollout and outlines a compendium of risks from RFR: reproductive, oncological, neuropsychiatric, and immunological, in addition to DNA alteration, and gene expression and antibiotic resistance risks. RF scientists have lobbied the World Health Organisation to categorise RFR as a Class 1 carcinogen.46, 47

It is interesting to note that governments and industry rely on guidelines recommended by ICNIRP, a non-accountable body recently ruled biased by two EU courts and the object of an investigation by two MEPs.48, 49 In August 2021, judges ruled in a US court case that the Federal Communications Commission has ignored evidence of harm.50

The 5G standard encompasses both low-frequency RFR (similar to 4G) and high-frequency millimetre waves. The biological effects from low-frequency RF radiation are well-studied and established, whilst existing research suggests that millimetre waves may damage the nervous system, skin, and eyes.51

Wired solutions
Organisations such as the Environmental Health Trust are pushing for increased use of wired solutions such as broadband and fibre optics in homes, schools and offices. Wired tech, maintain its proponents, is not only RFR-free but it uses less energy than wireless, is faster and more secure, and could better bridge the digital divide.52-54

As consumers we might pause and ask ourselves: is 5G there to fulfil our needs, or that of business models? Applications such as telemedicine and smart cities can function on existing technologies, argues Coma – a view also presented by telecoms engineer and Southampton University visiting professor William Webb in his book The 5G Myth.55, 56

If there is mileage in using China as a crystal ball, we would have to observe that energy needs have been higher than anticipated so far, and 5G’s benefits have been exaggerated, according to Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei. ‘Human societies do not have an urgent need for 5G,’ he says. ‘What people need now is broadband, and the main content of 5G is not broadband.’57