5G can help reduce air and water pollution, minimize water and food waste, and protect wildlife. But an increase in greenhouse gas emissions will be due in part to the fact that consumers will need to buy new 5G mobile phones in order to take full advantage of 5G.
COVID-19 has made one thing crystal clear: Society needs the Internet to function. The health and safety of the population depends on the reliability of the network. Demand for fast, reliable and diversified communication has increased pressure on countries to quickly adopt 5G—the latest generation of digital technology, according to State of the Planet, Earth Institute, Columbia University
5G can deliver enhanced broadband for cell phones, super fast and reliable communication, and machine-to-machine communication. It promises to be 100 times faster than 4G.
The speed, capacity and connectivity of 5G will provide many opportunities to protect and preserve the environment. 5G technology with IoT will be able to increase energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enable more use of renewable energy. It can help reduce air and water pollution, minimize water and food waste, and protect wildlife. It can also expand our understanding of and hence improve decision-making about weather, agriculture, pests, industry, waste reduction and much more.
By enabling more people to work or access entertainment remotely and avoid commuting and flying for business, 5G will save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and airplanes.
5G’s potentially negative impacts on the environment
Data storage centers that handle cloud computing and websites, and store information use enormous amounts of energy—as much as 80 percent of total network energy use. About half of this goes towards keeping transmission equipment in base stations cool. A Berkeley Lab report found that U.S. data centers consumed 70 billion kWh in 2014; this year they are projected to consume 73 billion kWh. Small cell base stations used to 5G may devour three times as much power as 4G base stations.
An increase in greenhouse gas emissions will be due in part to the fact that consumers will need to buy new 5G mobile phones in order to take full advantage of 5G. A Swedish study calculated that a smart phone produced 45 kg of CO2 during its entire lifetime, with most of it coming from the production phase—the manufacture of integrated circuits, sourcing the raw material, production of the phone shell, then assembly and distribution. If accessories and the mobile network are included, the total life cycle impact is 68 kg CO2.
The manufacture of more IoT devices and cell phones, and small cells also means more mining and use of many nonrenewable metals that are difficult to recycle.
As consumers around the world move to 5G phones, many older phones and IoT devices will be discarded if there are no buy back or recycling plans for them. This will result in enormous amounts of e-waste, which is already a huge global problem.
When will 5G arrive?
As of June 2020, 5G was available to some degree in 38 countries. In the United States, the three major cell phone carriers (T-Mobile/Sprint, Verizon, AT&T) have deployed some 5G in major cities. But the extent of 5G service still depends on the availability of more new devices—cell phones and smart sensors. These are expected to be launched late this year and into 2021. The prevailing thinking is that worldwide adoption of 5G is three years away.
Whether or not 5G will be a boon or a bane for the environment remains to be seen. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY