Categories
Issue 4

The 5G Conundrum: Can we achieve carbon neutrality?

Nirvik Thapa
Global internet usage is responsible for 1.7 million tonnes of annual emissions. The advent of 5G might exacerbate this.

On 13th October 2020, Apple unveiled its new lineup of iPhone 12 phones in its virtual Special Event. Like other Apple release events, this too garnered great attention. But this time, fans were divided over Apple’s decision to not include the charging brick and earphones from further on. 

Apple’s website claims that the company’s decision to revamp its packaging and not include the charging block and earphone is one step among many towards their goal of making all products carbon neutral by 2030. But the introduction of 5G into its devices raises an important question. Is the company really contributing to offset carbon emissions, even beyond its sale to the consumer?

These new iPhones will be the first smartphones from Apple that feature 5G connectivity. Samsung released its first all-5G smartphone in March this year. Companies like Google and Nokia followed suit. As technology continues to rapidly progress, in the next few years or maybe even sooner, mid-range and low-end smartphones from other companies will surely include 5G.  Like Apple, these companies will also advertise their phones’ 5G feature. Assuming that the use of 5G will be widespread, it is pivotal that we look at how sustainable it is.

According to an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report, 53.6% of the global population or more than 4 billion people use the internet. From sending emails to searching, all of our actions on the internet result in carbon emissions. To allow data transmission on such a large scale, enormous amounts of energy is required to operate servers, cloud services and run data centers. The carbon footprint of this, along with what results from the usage of our devices, results in colossal units of greenhouse gas emissions. BBC reports this amount to be almost 1.7 billion tonnes every year. 

Conversations around carbon emissions rarely examine the effects of internet data centres. According to a 2019 Greenpeace report, the internet conglomerate, Amazon, backtracked from its commitment to using 100% clean energy to operate its data centres as it expanded. It was found that Amazon’s data centres in Virginia were powered by only 12% of renewable energy. When WIRED reached out to Amazon for comments, it received no reply from the web service giant. 

Events like these create anxieties for a world that has been ravaged by several disasters due to global warming which has been a direct consequence of exorbitant levels of carbon emissions. 

The dilemma posed by the need to have more technologies is concerning not just for big companies and environmental organizations but also to the average person. In June 2018, CBS reported that wireless companies in the US would have to install 300,000 new transmission antennas for the rollout of 5G connectivity. The reason for this is because the higher frequency requires antennas to be closer for optimum usage. This was alarming to some residents in Maryland, as they were concerned that increasing the number of transmission towers would drive down the property values in their neighborhoods. While this was the prime concern, residents were reluctant to have these towers installed in front of their homes also because of possible health risks these towers posed due to radiation, although most studies found no correlation. 

It would not be pragmatic for us to look at only one end of the internet consumption chain. Much of the onus to create a sustainable internet also falls on the consumer. 

Our addiction to social media, video streaming, tending to notifications and other habits online necessitate faster connections. For instance, in the last decade, online video streaming has shifted from a standard 480p quality format to much higher resolutions. These require considerable bandwidth. A study found out that online video altogether spawns 60% of the world’s data flow and emits more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. 

Important stakeholders in terms of video streaming are Over-the-top (OTT) media services like Netflix. Such streaming platforms have revolutionized the way we have been consuming media. The releasing of television shows at one go allows for people to binge-view content. Much like social media, it is incredibly easy to get addicted to Netflix. 

Such consumption has impacts on the politics of everyday life. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken’s research on the nature of spoilers of TV shows suggests that spoiling shows by revealing plots has shifted from being a faux pas to giving one social power. It can be deduced from this that people would not want to miss out on popular TV shows because of the cultural capital it allows one to have, and also, they would want to consume it as soon as possible so that they have the upper hand when it comes to spoilers. 

Since OTT platforms have supplanted itself as a prominent cultural fixture in these past few years, it is not surprising that 5G connectivity will provide greater convenience for the consumer to access a multitude of shows anytime, in high resolutions, across several kinds of devices including Apple’s new 5G iPhones. The demand will be fueled by more popular content and people will want to get in on it. The ramifications will include a much greater carbon footprint. 

Along with our subsequent shift to virtual reality, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated our internet habits. The carbon emissions from our internet use have skyrocketed due to this. It would be incredibly ignorant to overlook the implications of our internet use on the environment. The consumer is responsible to cultivate green internet habits and reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. With companies like Apple pledging to be carbon neutral, governments and environmental organizations need to check whether they are actually achieving these agendas. As the 5G technology expands its reach, all stakeholders must assess whether it would really make a difference before signing up for new subscriptions. While Apple’s new packaging might be a step in the right decision, the company, along with other manufacturers, still have work to do in order to reduce carbon emissions. 

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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