Enabling the Enablers: A Path to Europe’s Green Transition

by Irina Varlan, Managing Director of GIGAEurope

Brussels – 31 May 2022 – It is impossible to imagine a world without connectivity. This is an exciting moment for the digital sector and its partners in sustainable innovation. Both large and small technology companies are working towards tackling some of the globe’s most pressing issues, such as increasing food security through precision farming techniques, improving personalised health care through digital therapeutics, and responsibly enhancing AI.

As information and communication technology companies continue to innovate, with a vision for the future of connectivity, equally they are increasingly mindful of the future of our planet. Operators in the sector are keenly aware of the urgent need to minimise greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, increase sustainable use of natural resources, and reduce the impact of the sector’s operations on the environment.

The 2019 EU Green Deal identifies digital technology as “a critical enabler” for achieving Europe’s sustainability targets across different sectors while calling for greater energy and material efficiency of ICT. This Communication also highlights the capacity of digitalisation to monitor levels of pollution and optimise the use of energy and natural resources. Technology is a key part of the solution, notably its ability to enable real-time data analyses that facilitate a more efficient use of resources.

Global ICT providers, responsible for keeping the world connected in a sustainable way, have gained valuable insights through their experience implementing and enabling multiple aspects of sustainable connectivity and digitalisation across sectors. For example, 5G connected drones can help farmers use pesticides more sparingly and Gigabit fixed networks enable virtual reality experiences that replace non-essential commutes to physical locations.

According to the Draft BEREC report on sustainability, “Assessing BEREC’s Contribution to Limiting the Impact of the Digital Sector on the Environment,” the estimated percentage of GHG emissions attributed to the ICT sector is 2 – 4%. In general, this is a relatively low emitting sector. There are, however, legitimate concerns that the low emissions are unlikely to remain stable in the long term. Some argue that the energy consumption of the industry may increase as the demand for services increases.

To address this concern, connectivity providers have already taken action to reduce their GHG emissions and their impact on the environment. Over 10 of the leading telecommunications operators, together with more than a dozen ICT companies, have signed the, European Green Digital Coalition declaration, demonstrating their commitment to establishing science-based targets for reducing GHG emissions by 2030 and to become climate neutral or net-zero no later than 2040.

In developing their own targets and self-imposed policies, companies have also agreed to use metrics and targets endorsed by the Scientific Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and independently validated by SBTi’s technical experts. They have also joined the Race to Zero Climate Ambition Alliance.

More specific actions by connectivity providers to care for the environment include purchasing energy-efficient network components and customer premise equipment (like set-top-boxes), using energy efficiency improvements (for instance AI and smart metering), implementing strategies to eliminate the use of harmful substances (including coolants in on-site air conditioning systems), and using renewable energy resources to power their operations. Recognising the negative environmental impact of fossil fuels on the environment, such as water and air pollution, many ICT companies have signed long-term contracts with renewable energy providers as they work towards their own 100% renewable energy use targets.

Because, devices and other forms of equipment are the greatest contributor to the ICT sector’s environmental footprint, companies are also addressing electronic waste (e-waste) through initiatives, such as the Eco Rating initiative, and their own internal programs. Through these programs and initiatives, telecommunications companies have already removed over 6.5 million tons of e-waste and recycled or reused up to 99% of this waste in an environmentally friendly manner.

The reduction of GHG emissions and lower impact on the environment will likely continue to yield positive results as ICT companies continue to work towards these targets and further implement their self-imposed policies to be greener and more sustainable.

Connectivity providers are important stakeholders in Europe’s green and digital transition and are well-positioned to provide expertise on the formation of forward-looking regulations that avoid impeding upon the sustainable digital future that Europe requires. The ICT industry remains ready to co-create a future EU and global green ICT regulatory framework, such as the new rules on broadband cost reduction, that crowds in private investment.

Fully actualising the objectives of the EU Green Deal and targets of the Digital Decade will require a mixture of all technologies and gigabit connectivity infrastructures. Forward-looking connectivity policies and regulatory instruments that have a technology neutral approach would be most welcomed by investors in the sector.

The overall aim should also be to increase uptake of digital technologies across our societies, to leverage their positive impact in lowering emissions and increase resource efficiency. As the Brussels-based representative of private investors in gigabit connectivity infrastructure, GIGAEurope is a proponent of the absence of preferential technology requirements within the EU’s regulatory instruments for the telecoms sector, such as Broadband Cost Reduction Directive (BCRD) and State Aid.

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