Skip to main content
cutting emissions

Smash emissions
targets by going
sustainable by design

8-minute read

Watching the rain lash against the window and the outdoor thermometer struggle to reach 20 degrees centigrade, you’d be forgiven for thinking that summer simply did not arrive in London, and yet temperatures topped +47 degrees centigrade across the rest of Europe and North America’s Pacific North West coast. Elsewhere, floods engulfed central China, Madagascar is suffering its worst drought in 40 years and rain has fallen in Greenland for the first time on record. The US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that July 2021 was the Earth’s hottest month on record.

This unusual weather is becoming more frequent. Greenhouse gases (GHG)—especially carbon dioxide—that are generated from burning carbon-based fuel, are heating up the planet and changing weather patterns. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth climate report in August 2021 and it details the seriousness of the situation. The report is clear that human influence is causing climate change and the “impacts are widespread, rapid and intensifying”. On the back of it, governments are finally putting climate action at the top of their agendas. Business and citizens will also need to act to reduce carbon emissions.


Figure 1 Overview of greenhouse gas protocol scopes and emissions across the value chain


Many roads lead to net zero

Why are CSPs cutting their carbon emissions?

CSPs have a central role to play in the climate action response. As they expand their networks to meet demand, CSPs must look at how and where they can cut their own energy consumption and emissions, particularly, as other industries will use their services to decarbonize. Many CSPs have already begun their journey and publicly stated their intent to cut direct and indirect emissions to meet the dates set in the Paris Agreement. For example,

  • BT achieved its goals to purchase 100% renewable energy by 2020 and aims for net zero carbon emission for Scopes 1, 2 and 3 by 2045. 
  • Vodafone achieved its target to source 100% renewable electricity in Europe by July 2021. Its global business is on track to achieve the same goal by 2025. It also aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from its operations by 2030.
  • For its French and Italian businesses, Iliad aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions for direct and indirect operation emissions (Scope 1 and 2) by 2035—15 years earlier than the target date set in the Paris Agreement— and it’s set a net zero target for its Scope 3 emissions by 2050.
  • Verizon has committed to reducing its Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 53% between 2019 and 2030, and Scope 3 by 40% between 2019 and 2035.

Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions are the most straightforward for CSPs to address. By changing to a renewable energy supplier, CSPs will reduce their Scope 2 emissions to zero. However, they can’t stop there. They need to decouple demand for digital services from energy consumption, change company-owned vehicles to electric models, and ensure companies and partners in their supply chain are also taking climate actions (see Figure 1) to cover Scope 1 and 3 emissions. CSPs need to take active measures to reduce power consumption and emissions in their network infrastructure to meet their own corporate objectives, secure future investor funding, and create a sustainable, thriving business.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock investment management company, is leading the way in demanding that companies have a clear, achievable and measurable sustainability strategy to make themselves more attractive for future investment. In Fink’s 2021 Letter to CEOs, he stated that given how central the energy transition will be to every company’s growth prospects, BlackRock is asking companies to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net zero economy. In his letter, he noted that over the course of 2020, purposeful companies, with better environmental, social, and governance (ESG) profiles, have outperformed their peers.

What are Scope 1, 2, 3 carbon emissions?

  • Scope 1 are the direct GHG emissions from company-owned or controlled sources and company-owned vehicles.
  • Scope 2 are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity including steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company. Typically, the CSPs will count their networks as Scope 2 emissions. (If the network has been outsourced, it will count as Scope 3 emissions for the CSP. CSPs’ routers on an end user premises will also count toward Scope 3 emissions).
  • Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur from employees’ commuting and business travel, but a greater portion comes from participants in a company’s supply chain and from the use of products it sells. (It’s important to note that the scope of emissions will change depending on where a company sits in the value chain).

The approach to energy efficient networks

Yet these practical actions need to be rooted in a clear strategy for the short, medium and long term (see Figure 2).

CSPs need to rethink existing operations and factor in end-of-life use for products and materials. Once this is done, they’ll be able to move from: a linear Take->Make->Waste production model, to a circular Reclaim->Reuse->Recycle business model.

Figure 2 The road to energy efficient networks that cut emissions

cut emissions

Source: Nokia

As Proximus CTO’s Geert Standaert notes, “This decade is sustainable by design.” Digital technology and connectivity will renew CSPs business models. Using automation, machine learning, AI, IoT sensors and virtual reality, CSPs will help decarbonize other industries and supply chains, and create smart societies and economies. If they adopt circular operational and business processes, CSPs will be thriving businesses at the heart of an ecosystem, powering clean and sustainable societies.

Where can CSPs cut emissions in their networks?

In 2021, the GSMA conducted a survey with + 100 CSPs. The study showed that 83% of global CSPs saw energy consumption as major network transformation driver that will only grow in importance. 67% of CSPs see energy costs rising in the next three years and 30% expect a rise of 10% and more. There are many areas where CSPs can focus their activities to reduce network power consumption and reduce carbon emissions. Here are four where they’re already making progress: 

  • The radio access network (RAN) 
  • The backhaul network 
  • Network management and operations
  • Data centers

Cutting emissions in the RAN

The greatest level of power consumption and emission occurs in the radio access network (RAN). According to a 2018 research paper from the American Journal of Engineering Research (AJER), the base station in the RAN accounts for between 60-80% of energy consumption. Table 4 in the paper also shows that GSM technology is less energy efficient than LTE technology, so generally speaking, newer technology tends to be cleaner and more energy efficient.

With many CSPs planning to upgrade their mobile networks to 5G, it’s a good time to look at legacy RAN and associated spectrum and modernize assets. According to Bernd Leven, Head of Energy Performance at Vodafone, in 2017, the company decided to shut down its 3G network in Europe; by 2021, 96% of its traffic was on 4G and 5G. By migrating traffic from the 3G spectrum bands to 4G bands, it was able to reduce CAPEX as well as OPEX spend for energy and spectrum utilization.

“​​​​​Massive scale deployment of fiber in Belgium has resulted in a 75% energy saving cost.”
Geert Standaert
CTO at Proximus

Cutting emissions in the backhaul and fixed network

The backhaul network also needs to use the most energy efficient and sustainable technology, especially given its long product life cycle. Traditionally, copper was used in urban backhaul deployments and required engineers to dig trenches to lay the cable. However, copper has limited capacity and doesn’t scale efficiently, so it’s gradually being replaced by optical fiber networks, enabling not only much higher speeds and new services, but a reduction in energy consumption and emissions. Geert Standaert, CTO at Proximus, is pleased with the results his company has seen. He says, “Massive scale deployment of fiber in Belgium has resulted in a 75% energy saving cost.”

Cutting emissions for network operations and management

Network upgrades are CAPEX and time intensive, so this has led some CSPs to take a radical approach. According to Standaert, Proximus decided to go the network sharing route, with another Belgian CSP, for its mobile network. This allowed it to reduce energy consumption by 20%.

Network optimization offers another route that may be faster to implement. According to Sami Komulainen, Elisa’s Executive Vice President of Production, while Elisa’s energy consumption is 100% based on renewables, network optimization helped decrease the company’s carbon footprint (Scope 1 and 2) by more than 82% compared to 2016. Komulainen’s team conducted data comparisons that showed capacity requirements dropped in the evenings. Consequently, the team decided to ramp down the base stations overnight, but were confident they could reverse the decision if demand rose. The move was a success and cut electricity consumption by around 14%.

“Network optimization helped decrease the company’s carbon footprint (Scope 1 and 2) by more than 82% compared to 2016.”
Sami Komulainen
Executive VP of Production, Elisa

French operator Illiad has also been using Artificial Intelligence (AI) based solutions to perform dynamic shutdowns of unused resources and frequencies, and this has also decreased its energy consumption. Using analytics and AI to manage network energy efficiency is set to grow in importance in the coming years. In the GSMA survey, 65% of CSP respondents view AI-driven management solutions will deliver a minimum of 10% energy savings (See Figure 3).

Figure 3

Source: Using AI to improve energy efficiency: The feasible option to process energy-related data, 2021 Nokia - GSMA Intelligence

Data centers

Half of the energy used by data centers is used for cooling. However, it’s not sustainable to run a data center using air-cooled components as the primary source, particularly when a large portion of the center’s power output comes from the cooling system itself. So, instead of deploying air conditioning units, CSPs and enterprises can look at energy efficient alternatives.

Water is also used in the cooling system deployed by Norwegian construction company, MIRIS. CEO, Jan-Gunnar Mathisen explains, “MIRIS uses liquid cooling to cool its data centers in a much more efficient way and reuses it in a local heating system creating a clean and energy efficient process.”

Illiad uses adiabatic cooling process in all its data centers and expects that this will reduce energy consumption. Adiabatic cooling is used in evaporative coolers. Large fans draw warm air through pads moistened with water and as the water evaporates, the air is chilled and pushed into the room. The airflow can be regulated to control the temperature in the room. Adiabatic cooling is one of ten measures that Iliad has made as part of its 10 Climate Pledges sustainability strategy to reach net zero emissions by 2035.

CSPs can ensure a decarbonized and sustainable future

This is an important take away for CSPs, enterprises and their partners. All businesses need to think about how they design their future products to be sustainable. Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group, is adamant that while CSPs have an important role to play in enabling industries to reduce their environmental footprint, everyone needs to focus on cutting their energy consumption and emissions. Speaking at the Climate Ambition Summit Read said, "No company can tackle climate change alone.” He continued, “We need to act together across industries and sectors and work with policy makers and regulators. Our planet is calling for help.”

Cutting emissions has never been more important. Now—finally—CSPs have the technology that can help the world act together to ensure a decarbonized and sustainable future.