After eleven days of negotiations, delegates at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December produced a non-legally binding agreement which essentially recognized that temperature rises needed to be kept below 2ºC, but contained no commitments to reduced emission targets that would meet that goal. The closest it came to hard numbers was a pledge of $30 billion to help developing countries adapt to climate change, which would be increased to $100 billion by 2020.
Whether that outcome counts as a success or a failure depends on who you ask. The most positive comments - mainly from leaders like US president Barack Obama, British PM Gordon Brown, China PM Wen Jiabao and India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh - called the accord a "positive" result and "a good start". Others expressed disappointment and dismay, and NGOs called it an "abject failure" due to its non-binding nature and a lack of hard targets and solutions.
The COP15 summit is almost certainly a failure from the point of view of telecoms, mobile and ICT organizations that attended the summit in the hopes of convincing negotiators to make information communications technology a key part of their climate change strategies.
ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré urged delegates to harness ICT to help reduce emissions, citing studies showing that more effective use of ICTs could cut CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions by as much as 40% by 2050. One study - released during COP15 by IDC - estimated that 5.8 billion Gigatons (Gt) of CO2 emissions can be eliminated by 2020 through the focused use of ICT-based solutions, with six APAC countries - Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Korea - accounting for over 40% of that figure.
"Put simply, ICT is the single most powerful tool humankind has at its disposal to avoid potential climate catastrophe," Tour?said in a statement.
The GSM Association was also at the summit pitching mobile's role in fighting climate change via its Green Manifesto. Announced at the GSMA's Mobile Asia Congress in mid-November, the manifesto not only pledges to reduce the mobile industry's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 40% by 2020, but also help other sectors reduce their own emissions footprint by up to 20%.
How was that message received? "We felt quite shut out from the big picture," GSMA senior vice president Gabriel Solomon told Wireless Asia.
Gabriel said the problem wasn't a question of deaf ears or Luddite sensibilities but of simple priorities. "People recognized the role of mobile technology as a no-brainer, but when you actually talk to the climate change negotiators, they're not looking for solutions - they're more focused on achieving a top-down deal, setting targets without really caring how those targets are achieved."
That high-level approach conflicted with the GSMA's bottom-up strategy, Solomon explains. "We've already got most of the things in place to lower emissions, but the climate change negotiators have to recognize that and to work with a bottom-up model rather than be focused on setting high-level targets from the top down. And of course in reality in Copenhagen there were no high-level targets agreed on anyway."
The Copenhagen experience shows just how hard it is to get governments to take real action on a politically contentious issue like climate change. And while the GSMA isn't backing off from its goals to reduce mobile's emissions 40% in ten years, the catch is that the mobile industry needs the government onboard in order to hit that target.
Understanding the GSMA's overall 40% target starts with the recognition that, strictly speaking, it's not so much cutting its CO2 emissions as preventing them from growing further as the mobile sector expands to an estimated 8 billion connections over the next decade (not including M2M connections). Climate change consultancy Irbaris estimates that mobile industry emissions grew from 90 Mega-tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 2002 to 245 Mt CO2e by 2009, during which the global mobile subscriber base grew from 1.1 billion to 4.6 billion. If mobile users hit the 8 billion mark by 2020 and the industry's emissions remain at 245 Mt CO2e, that translates to an overall emissions reduction of 40% per connection compared to 2009, according to the manifesto.
The GSMA has identified four key areas where it can cut CO2e emissions: network power consumption, renewable energy, network optimization (to include site sharing) and mobile devices. However, it's the network side where most of the savings will be realized, says Solomon.
"We've found that 84% of mobile emissions originate from the network, and the other 16% are related to devices," he says.
And in terms of network emissions, the vast majority - 71% of the total - is generated by power consumption from base station sites, including support equipment like cooling systems (which in themselves account for up to half of the energy consumed at the cell site).
By no coincidence, power consumption accounts for close to half of network opex in many markets, which is why even before the GSMA manifesto was released, vendors have been laboring to develop more power-efficient base station gear simply as a way for their customers to save money, regardless of the green benefits. Base station equipment in 2009 consumes far less power than equipment from the early 2000s. Five years ago, for example, a BTS from NSN ate up 4100 W of power. The 2009 model consumes less than 800 W, according to NSN.
Less power consumption also means less need for cooling. Where equipment makers once specified operating temperatures no higher than 25。, nowadays they run as high as 45。, as cellcos use passive cooling (which is to say, fresh air).
Other innovations to reduce energy consumption include "intelligent" antennas that draw less power by monitoring users' bandwidth requirements, power savings features that put unused resources like power amplifiers in stand-by mode and remote radio heads, where the BTS is mounted on the tower next to the antenna, which reduces the energy loss associated with the feeder cable connecting the radio to the antenna.
Software-defined base stations also play a role. BTSs that can change mobile technologies with a software upgrade offer lower equipment volumes and power consumption. Huawei says its SingleRAN hardware reduces BTS power by 50% and the volume of equipment needed by 70%. ZTE's version of the software defined base station is reportedly enabling 40% less power consumption in CSL's network in Hong Kong.
A related area is in renewable energy sources for base station sites. Alt-energy technology initiatives have been focused largely on emerging markets where electrical power grids outside of the urban centers are either unreliable or non-existent. In such markets, base stations are typically powered by diesel generators, which are not only major polluters in their own right, but also push the energy spend of networks as a proportion of total opex from the norm of 10% to anywhere between 15% and 30%, according to research firm Ovum - and that cost is heavily dependent on the price of oil.
Consequently, operators have been experimenting with renewable energy such as wind, solar and biofuels (although the latter is falling out of favor, says the GSMA's Solomon, as it doesn't scale well).
The GSMA's Green Power For Mobile initiative hopes to have 118,000 base stations running on renewable energy by 2012. The initiative also includes International Finance Corp - the private sector arm of the World Bank - which is working with the GSMA to develop financing options that will encourage uptake of alt-energy.
"One of the typical barriers in adopting alternative energy is the incremental costs and longer payback period," Solomon says. "So the IFC is working with us to provide new financing mechanisms so that the payback period comes within a threshold more acceptable to mobile operators."
However, the greater opportunity for alt-energy BTSs could come from on-grid sites, and in developed as well as developing markets as cellcos see the potential of having more control over their own power sources, Solomon adds.
"Given that 71% of their emissions come from network power consumption, the source of that power and how it's supplied, whether by coal-fired reactors or clean nuclear, is out of the network operator's control. So that creates an incentive to invest in renewable," he says.
ABI Research agrees - it's forecasting more than 200,000 renewable-energy base stations to be adopted for on-grid usage by 2013, compared to 113,000 off-grid deployments.
On the handset front, green initiatives include universal chargers, "green" handset production and better recycling plans.
The idea of a universal charger - another GSMA project - appeals on a consumer level because of the convenience of compatibility, but it's also an energy-saving issue. An industry-standard energy-efficient charger with a 4-star or higher efficiency rating could yield an estimated 50% reduction in standby energy consumption and eliminate up to 51,000 tons of duplicate chargers per year. The GSMA hopes to have the spec ready by the start of 2012.
Still, chargers will only contribute about 4% to emissions at the moment, so the savings won't add up to much in the bigger picture.
Other initiatives include handsets using solar power (LG, Samsung, Sharp and ZTE are leading that charge) or being constructed of recycled, biodegradable plastic and, of course, reduced packaging (to include "e-manuals", for example, that eliminate the need for printed manuals).
However, the road to creating truly green handsets isn't an easy one - or cheap, says ABI Research industry analyst Michael Morgan, who points out that creating a verifiably green handset can mean revamping the whole supply chain and retooling the production process, while watchdog groups like Greenpeace keep an eye on things like "greenwashing".
"There's a difference between being merely compliant and being truly green," Morgan said in a research note. "The three key factors are: using recyclable or renewable materials; ensuring that handsets are in fact recycled after use; and introducing low-power chargers. Even more crucial for the long-term: leveraging the lessons learned in this process and applying them right through entire handset portfolios."
As such, ABI says the percentage of "properly" recycled handsets will grow from 8% in 2009 to 17% in 2014.
Another challenge is that handset recycling isn't that common among users. While only 4% of handsets ever make it to the landfill, only 3% are ever actually recycled. The rest are kept, given to friends or family members, or resold, according to a 2008 Nokia survey.
Ironically, while all of these initiatives could add up to neutral CO2e growth for the mobile sector, it barely puts a dent in the overall global picture. According to the International Energy Agency, a "business-as-usual" scenario would see global emissions associated with human activities (primarily transportation, power, buildings, industry, agriculture, and forestry and land use) rise from 40 Gt CO2e in 2002 to nearly 52 Gt CO2e in 2020. Mobile emissions by that time would only account for 0.5% of that.
Which is why the GSMA is emphasizing that it's not just about flattening its own CO2 output, but also helping other sectors to lower theirs.
The secret, according to the manifesto, lies in M2M communications enabling "smart solutions" - as in smart grids, smart meters, smart logistics, smart transportation smart manufacturing, etc.
A 2009 report from Vodafone and Accenture concluded that deploying such technologies in multiple sectors could save 113 Mt CO2e by 2020. A separate report, "Smart2020", published by GeSI and The Climate Group in 2008 that focused on ICT-enabled initiatives in the buildings, transportation, power, and industry sectors could generate 7.8 Gt CO2e reductions in 2020.
As an example, the transportation sector is expected to account for 15% of global GHG emissions in 2020. The Vodafone/Accenture report estimates that 45 Mt CO2e can be saved in 2020 in this sector alone by applying mobile-enabled solutions such as M2M fleet tracking systems, synchronized traffic and notification systems in urban areas, and onboard telematics systems.
That's just in the EU25. Extrapolating those figures globally, the GSMA reckons mobile enabled smart transport and logistics initiatives could reduce GHG emissions by 270 Mt CO2e in 2020 or 3.5% of 2020 global transportation and logistics GHG emissions.
All up, the Smart2020 report estimates that mobile technologies could reduce global GHG emissions in other sectors by 1,150 Mt CO2e by 2020. Which means that the mobile sector can save other sectors about five times as much emissions than it can save just in its own backyard.
Not unexpectedly, theory and practice are two different things, and there are numerous challenges that the mobile sector will have to overcome - almost none of them related to technology.
One major challenge, says the GSMA's Gabriel Solomon, is the lack of a common metric and methodology for measuring emissions, not only throughout the mobile industry but also across the ICT sector in general.
"That makes it hard to get a consistent picture from different operators, because they'll be using different metrics to measure their own emissions," he says.
The GSMA is working with the ICT Energy Efficiency Forum, which aims to come up with a globally acceptable methodology within the next couple of years, which will not only help the GSMA demonstrate the industry's progress in hitting its 40% reduction goal, but also "enable a more proactive target-setting agenda once we can collect consistent data across different operators and aggregate that accordingly," says Solomon.
Meanwhile, the ITU's Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB) is currently working with industry leaders to develop a standardized international methodology for measuring ICT's carbon footprint, and hopes to seal an agreement by April this year.
Government support crucial
However, the bigger challenge may be getting governments to understand just how crucial mobile and ICT technology will be in setting their own targets for CO2e reductions. Awareness among government leaders tends to vary widely, regardless of development level. For example, Elizabeth Quat - co-founder of the Green ICT Consortium in Hong Kong - says that while the HK government is laying out plans to build a "low-carbon economy", ICT is completely absent from their strategy, despite the government being the territory's biggest ICT consumer.
"I've had discussions with our Finance Secretary and the Chief Secretary. They never think that IT can be part of the way to reduce carbon emissions. It's not in their minds at all. So we need to do a lot of lobbying," Quat told sister publication Enterprise Innovation.
The experience at COP15 suggests Hong Kong's leaders aren't alone in missing the significance of ICT technologies, including mobile, in tackling climate change. Even when they are, says Solomon, they're usually more focused on mobile's direct effect on emissions rather than seeing mobile as an enabler of change.
And that's a problem for the mobile sector, because while the initiatives under the Green Manifesto will go on regardless, it's unlikely to hit its reduction targets without cooperation from the public sector.
"A lot of the public spend is on energy provisioning, education, healthcare, and it's in those areas where if the public sector was incentivized to work with mobile and ICT, solutions could be given at scale to achieve that 20% offset," Solomon says. "But in order to achieve the potential, we need more public-private partnership."
It may not help that some of the things that the GSMA is asking regulators to do - such as freeing up new harmonized spectrum bands for HSPA and LTE, creating tax breaks for imported equipment and SIM cards, and generally taking a more liberalized stance towards the mobile and ICT sectors - are items the GSMA was already lobbying them to enable (albeit in the name of broadband-enabled GDP growth). At least some public bureaucrats are almost certain to take notice.
The other problem, says Solomon, is that it's not just a matter of convincing the telecoms regulator to bring mobile/ICT tech into the plan, but all government departments.
"We work with telecoms ministries and regulators all the time but this effort goes beyond those departments to other departments," Solomon says. "Each department has to come up with their own incentive, essentially, to drive efficiencies using mobile and ICT. And we're seeing precious little of that on a holistic basis."