Wired to Unwired

The author talks about the ‘connected’ world and how this ‘indicator of development’ contributes to global warming

In March 2009, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reported that more than 4 billion people use a mobile phone, with three times more mobile cellular subscriptions than fixed telephone lines globally. Two thirds of those are now in the developing world compared with less than half in 2002. There are recognised social and economic benefits associated with mobile communications, including evidence that in low income countries, an average of 10 more mobile phone users per 100 people was associated with a per capita GDP growth of 0.59%. The main environmental impacts from mobile communications are through materials use at the design stage, energy use during operation and recycling of end-of-life equipment. There are also potential environmental opportunities using wireless communications to improve the energy efficiency of other sectors. The particular importance of mobile communications in the developing world offers additional opportunities in adapting local behaviours and providing warnings about weather or other hazards.

Energy use

The Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI) estimates that mobile communications currently represents about 3% of the global ICT sector impact though this could grow to 13% by 2020 through the continued growth in subscribers. This numbers should also be seen in the context of GDP contribution, in the UK alone mobile communications contribute about 0.3% of national greenhouse gas impacts and around 1.8% of GDP, evidence of a low climate impact industry sector.

About 80% of a mobile operators’ energy is used by the network, so significant efforts are underway to improve efficiency. About half the energy used by the site is for radio transmission purposes and a large proportion of the remaining 50% is associated with active cooling, especially the use of air-conditioning. Operators have reported three-fold increases in the efficiency of radio transmitters in recent years and the move from 2G to 3G communications technologies can support up to eight times more subscribers on each transmitter. In cooler climates there is an increasing move to eliminate air conditioning for base station equipment and instead use fans or passive cooling through better air flow design. Operators in developing countries have successfully run base station equipment at 45°C, rather than 25°C, and newer equipment is being supplied with specifi ed reliability at these higher temperatures, thus substantially easing cooling needs.


An increasing number of base stations are being built in off-grid and unreliable grid locations,  the GSM Association (GSMA) estimates that 75,000 newoff-grid sites will be built each year in developing countries through to 2012. It can cost an operator up to $30,000 and lead-times can be up to 2 years to provide grid electricity to a new site. Even where grid electricity is   available, it may be unreliable and operators rely extensively on diesel generators to power base stations. There are signifi cant costs not just in the price of diesel but also in transport to sites and provision of security.

As the power required to operate a base station has reduced, the feasibility of alternative energy solutions, especially wind and solar has improved. Wind is harder to predict for power  planning purposes and site surveys are recommended (though not always done) before  installation is undertaken. Where feasible, wind can provide suffi cient energy for larger sites. Solar power is economical for lower powered sites if used alone or as a complement to wind energy. A signifi cant advantage to solar is easier power planning through readily available databases of incident solar energy for various geographic locations. Typical payback periods for alternative energy installations are 2- 3 years. The GSMA has announced a target of 118,000 green power sites by 2012. Achieving that target would save up to 2.5 billion litres   of diesel per annum and cut annual carbon emissions by up to 6.3 million tonnes. This is an ambitious target as it is estimated that at the end of 2008, there were only 1,500 green power base stations worldwide.


About 1 billion new mobile phones are sold each year. Between 50% and 80% of these phones  are replacements for an existing device resulting in approximately 51,000 tonnes of duplicate chargers. In February 2009, the GSMA and 17 leading mobile operators and manufacturers announced a commitment to implement a crossindustry standard for a universal charger for new mobile phones that will be widely available by 2012. This universal charger will make life much simpler for the consumer, who will be able to use the same charger for future  handsets, as well as being able to charge their mobile phone anywhere from any available charger. The chargers will also have to meet an energy effi ciency rating that is up to three times more effi cient than an unrated charger. With potentially 50% less chargers being  manufactured each year, the industry can expect to reduce greenhouse gases in  manufacturing and transporting replacement chargers by 13.6 to 21.8 million tonnes a year.There may eventually come a time when the charger is no longer bundled with the handset and is provided to the customer only when needed.


New phones are becoming more energy effi cient, for example, power cells currently in use  require fewer resources during manufacture, and avoid the use of toxic metals, such as lead  and cadmium. Nevertheless, a phone should never be thrown away with unsorted household  waste. The mobile industry supports handset, battery and accessory take-back in more than  85 countries. When the returned phones are in good condition or economic repair is possible,  the phones may fi nd a second or even third happy user. More than 20% of mobile subscribers  live in the developing world and there are concerns over the potential for inappropriate disposal of mobile phones where the necessary recycling infrastructure for end-of-life  electronic equipment is lacking. In these countries the informal repair sector is signifi cant, so  successful collection requires engagement with this informal sector but research to date indicates that there is little awareness of the problems of electronic waste.

About 16% (by weight) of a typical mobile phone is considered ‘high value’ materials, for  example, gold, platinum, palladium and silver. About 80% of a phone can be recycled or the  energy recovered. The remainder can be used in inert construction aggregates However, high  value metals can only be safely recovered in sophisticated facilities that cannot be  duplicated in every country. Therefore, end-oflife phones will need to be exported, under  appropriate authorisations, to the few suitable plants. The GSMA welcomes efforts by  authorities to tackle illegal export of end-of-life electronic equipment to countries that lack the necessary infrastructure. However, the introduction of unnecessary barriers for companies  demonstrating good practices should be avoided.


There are signifi cant environmental opportunities associated with telecommunications. An Australian report estimated carbon reduction opportunities at 4.9% of Australia’s total national emissions. The GeSI report calculated that the ICT sector’s ability to monitor and maximise energy effi ciency both within and outside its own sector could cut CO2 emissions by up to fi ve times ICT’s own footprint, a potential saving of 7.8 giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2020.

For an individual mobile phone user, pilot projects have shown the use of mobile phones to  monitor air pollution in Ghana or track animal movements in South Africa. They are also  likely to form the basis of weather warning systems in order to mitigate the impact of  changing climate conditions. Applications that run are mobile phones are now available that  allow the user to calculate the carbon impact of choosing among different modes or transport  or to track their own energy usage. Widespread deployment of smart meters for electricity  could also be coupled with remote power control by mobile phone. In developing countries,  expensive, time consuming and polluting travel is being avoided by fi shermen or farmers  using text messaging to check market prices.


Climate change is a signifi cant issue for the wireless industry. The industry needs to reduce  the costs associated with use of carbon intensive fuels and the impacts of national carbon  reduction targets. In this context, how operational impacts are measured and the weight to be  given to offset benefi ts in other sectors are still to be determined. The GSMA initiatives to  harmonise mobile phone chargers to the benefi t of consumers and to facilitate the  development of green power for offgrid and unreliable grid base stations are concrete  contributions to reducing industry environmental impacts.