5G investments reduce carbon emissions—The government just needs to get out of the way

Not all GHG reductions occur through government intervention.

In the telecommunications sector, for instance, fixed and mobile broadband networks have facilitated positive environmental changes and helped reduce emissions, but the public discourse tends to be centered on the cost of services.

With every sector of the Canadian economy being called upon to reduce emissions and decarbonize, broadband deployment and the technologies it enables can reduce emissions in a number of ways. For instance, they can facilitate more efficient energy use in manufacturing a product or delivering a service, or in eliminating wasteful consumption.

There are also behavioural changes induced by broadband that affect our consumption and thus reduce emissions. Through remote working, for instance, digital connectivity decreases the demand for transportation. This in turn reduces the emissions associated with that transportation. One study estimates that reducing traffic congestion by only a tenth in Montreal would eliminate 130,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, which is like taking 29,000 cars off the road.

In fact, a recent systematic review concluded that remote working resulted in reductions of up to 15 percent in overall energy use and up to 80 percent in CO2 emissions.

At the macro-level, according to one conservative estimate, in the average OECD country, between 2002 and 2019, basic and fibre-based broadband connections reduced CO2 emissions by 67 Mt. This is not negligible, amounting to almost a quarter of the Canadian federal government’s ambitious 2030 emission reduction targets.

Deploying next-generation 5G and 5G-enabled technologies will have further positive impacts on our efforts to reduce emissions, due to both direct increases in the energy efficiency of the networks themselves and indirect impacts across all sectors that utilize ICT and other digital technologies.

In Canada alone, one study estimated that with a rapid rollout, 5G can enable emissions reductions of up to 10 Mt by 2030. Globally, according to another study, an expedited rollout could reduce emissions by 500 Mt by the end of the decade.

This is in addition to delivering connections up to 20 times faster and with up to 100 times the network capacity compared to 4G, not to mention the expected addition of another $120 billion to Canadian GDP by 2036.

We know the federal government is serious about reducing emissions. Budget 2023 pledged billions toward clean energy, decarbonizing, and various projects contributing to the government’s emission reduction priorities, as well as a handful of new investment tax credits with a net-zero aim.

However, the budget barely mentions the telecommunications sector or broadband, except in relation to “junk fees” and in championing the recent attraction of 5G-related investments.

If the government really wants to attract investment in this area, it should carry out a focused review of the burdensome regulatory framework and public policies that stifle investment and innovation. For example, the mandated sharing of networks at below-market prices reduces the incentives for big telcos to make significant infrastructure investments and the incentives for smaller companies to invest in their own competing networks.

Research shows that over longer periods of time, investments in broadband infrastructure contribute to reduced CO2 emissions. And that’s despite the initial increase after the introduction of broadband likely due to initial network infrastructure and increased electricity consumption.

The numbers don’t lie: the increases in energy efficiency and decreases in energy consumption and emissions facilitated by broadband networks and the digital economy are considerable, and the potential for 5G networks to achieve further reductions is significant. All the government needs to do to encourage the infrastructure investment needed for the rapid rollout of this next-generation technology, and all its attendant benefits, is simply get out of the way.

Krystle Wittevrongel is a Senior Policy Analyst and Alberta Project Lead at the MEI and the author of “Broadband Use and Energy Efficiency: Facilitating Emissions Reductions.” The views reflected in this opinion piece are her own.

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