The line between climate concern and climate crisis blurs with each passing headline. According to increasingly accurate projections, we are currently in the decisive decade. Over the next ten years, we must dramatically reduce carbon dioxide (or equivalent gases – collectively known as CO2e) levels or we will be unable to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Passing that tipping point will make it incredibly difficult to bring climate change under control.
This stark warning from climate scientists should be a wake-up call and a spur to action for every business in every sector. There is growing pressure and expectation from the public that businesses and organisations of all sizes will take accountability for their impact. Businesses are going to find themselves being held to higher standards as consumers become more educated and aware of the issues.
It’s not a case of should you take action, but how soon will you take action? Those businesses that step up earlier will find it easier to change, will be more positively viewed by their employees, consumers, and shareholders, and perhaps could find a competitive advantage by launching more eco-friendly products and services.
Emissions in the mobile sector
Much criticism is aimed at the aviation industry, which is responsible for about 2% of all global emissions. But that is also the figure for the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector. And as cloud-based services and storage increase, emissions caused by data centres will also increase.
However, the mobile ecosystem can prevent itself from becoming the new villain of the piece by exploiting its unique ability to aid other industries in reducing their emissions through the development of new technologies that result in companies and consumers saving energy, perhaps leading to a reduction in emissions of around 12.1 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) by 2030. So, the mobile and ICT industries have the potential to become a net negative sector.
What is the mobile sector doing to reduce emissions?
Mobile operator groups representing more than 50% of mobile industry revenues (and 30% of mobile connections globally) have committed to taking accountability for their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions and developing plans to reduce them as much as possible. This includes lowering power usage for computers (etc.) and buildings, reducing data storage in energy-consuming data centres, mobile device production and disposal, and limiting travel for conferences, trade shows, and meetings in general.
For example, the Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF) is setting science-based targets (SBTs) in line with achieving net zero emissions by 2050, if not before.
As an organisation, MEF is taking action by facilitating more and more online plenary web sessions to avoid (air-) travel. Several MEF online events hosted sustainability sessions with C-level speakers from Accenture, CO₂ValueEurope, Swisscom, and Vodafone to help share ideas and innovations with MEF members.
Additionally, MEF facilities during MWC (Mobile World Congress) Barcelona at the venue Llotja de Mar are currently gaining certification to ensure a move towards green and sustainable events.
Of course, some emissions are unavoidable. Simply by existing, we all contribute CO2e to the atmosphere. These unavoidable emissions can be offset by contributing to a carbon removal project. These can be nature-based, such as seaweed farms and tree planting, or technology-based, such as Direct Air Capture (DAC) devices that suck carbon directly from the atmosphere, which can then be re-used in e-fuels or stored permanently in the soil.
How can mobile businesses reduce carbon emissions?
In this article, I will provide some high-level ideas and strategies to help your business take account of and reduce its carbon emissions. For more details on these ideas, I would invite you to download the free MEF Climate Guide from our website.
From speaking to many SMEs, often the hardest thing is knowing where to start. The most useful place to start is simply to make emissions reduction a priority. Dedicate a team of people within your business with some time and resources to kick things off. Then follow this 4 (+1) plan for success and embed climate action into the company’s strategy.
Measure the impact of your business
With a motivated team in place, which has the support of top management, the first step is to measure the carbon footprint of your business. Only when you understand your organisation’s emissions and climate risks will you know where to dedicate your resources.
To understand your carbon emissions, you can use an online calculator for a rough idea. However, the best approach is to start taking actual measurements to build a clearer picture of your unique emissions profile.
To do this, set your base year based on whatever data you have available. We recommend 2015, if possible, to align with science-based targets. Otherwise, go for your nearest available data point (even if it is this year). With a zero point, you can begin to learn and create a feedback loop that helps you make a real impact over time.
Measurement is an area where the mobile ecosystem can really excel. By utilising IoT devices, we can directly measure the energy use of different devices. Additionally, by solving this measurement challenge for our own businesses, we will potentially create solutions that other businesses can use to measure their own impact.
ICT companies can make innovative mobile applications for their own usage as well as for customers and consumers to track current and reduced emissions. This creates a direct positive feedback spiral.
Measure the impact of your products
The next step is a complete lifecycle assessment of your different products and services. Identify any carbon-heavy or wasteful aspects, looking at raw materials and energy use in both the production and disposal of old devices.
Innovations in recycling and reuse often come about by identifying wasteful or energy-intensive parts of a product’s lifecycle. And a welcome benefit of reducing environmental impact is businesses saving money – for example rather than disposing of its old infrastructure, a data centre may be able to recycle and/or reuse in other areas of its business.
Additionally, telecom consumers should be made more aware of the implications of data waste. Regular file cleanups can reduce emissions and improve efficiency because everything that is stored in the cloud uses energy. It all adds up.
Cutting carbon emissions
Defining a roadmap for repeated reduction in emissions is vital. That starts with knowing what your current impact is. That allows you to set your target(s). Then the scale of your task will be a lot clearer.
Your targets don’t need to be perfect. At a recent INSEAD Climate online seminar (during COP27), Al Gore said that it’s better to have targets that are 80% correct than not have any climate targets at all.
As mentioned, many large operators are moving in the right direction to reduce their Co2 emissions. As a next step, they could support the MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) hosted on their networks and their ICT suppliers by sharing their know-how and buying power across the value chain. Thus helping the whole industry to be more sustainable.
Offset your unavoidable emissions
With a climate plan defined and annual reduction targets identified, you then need to consider offsetting unavoidable emissions. It is not reasonable to expect a company to achieve a sudden cut of all emissions. Time is required, and there will be some emissions that will always remain. Those emissions can be offset, which means paying for the removal of carbon elsewhere.
There are options for this; for example, Direct Air Capture devices that run on renewable geothermal energy in Iceland are built by the Swiss company Climeworks. These devices suck air through specialised filters, which capture and safely store atmospheric carbon underground. Alternatively, the CO2 can be captured and reutilised, as Co2Value.eu promotes.
Integrating with a nearby geothermal power plant provides Climeworks with the renewable energy required as well as a method for long-term carbon storage; they pump the carbon deep into the earth as part of the renewable energy-creation process.
Carbon removal projects are important because even if we were to reduce our emissions to zero, there would still be legacy atmospheric carbon to remove. In other words, stopping making a mess doesn’t absolve us of cleaning up the mess we have already made.
Key challenges and solutions
It might be easy to create a roughly defined process, but it is harder to do it in practice. Rather than gloss over these challenges, it is important to confront them head-on.
One of the most challenging aspects is behavioural change. We all form habits, and those habits are hard to break. Breaking them, even knowingly and with considerable effort, can sometimes be uncomfortable. But they can often prove to be cost-effective. One business that operated on different floors of a building significantly reduced their energy use (which also saved money) by putting a sign in the building’s lift. The sign detailed the energy cost of riding to each floor and asked employees and visitors to consider whether it was necessary to use the lift instead of the stairs. A five-minute job (printing and affixing the sign) cost very little but had a huge impact on the use of the lift.
Finding innovative ways to reduce emissions
There may be a great deal of information available about reducing emissions, but not all of it will be relevant to you and your business, and much of it will not be particularly innovative – the equivalent of not asking for clean towels in a hotel every day. However, you could encourage innovation by incentivising employees to put forward their best ideas.
Communicating and sharing these fresh ideas should also be encouraged. Consider setting up a local business group devoted to sharing emission reduction initiatives and impacts. You might help other businesses cut their emissions, or you might find new ways to reduce your own.
It is also worth considering that not taking action will soon (if not already) become a competitive disadvantage. If every other business is making changes and communicating them to their customers and employees, you could find it harder to hold on to and recruit staff and potentially lose business.
Sticking with your plan
Holding your plotted course can sometimes be challenging. It’s easy to feel disheartened by the scale of the challenge. After all, you run an SME; how much will cutting your emissions actually help? There are, however, vastly more SMEs than big businesses, so don’t underestimate your impact.
To help with this, share good news stories about how environmental projects and sustainability initiatives are working. For example:
- Last year, the EU produced 22% of its electricity from wind and solar power – more than from gas.
- Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a system that can convert greenhouse gases and plastic into two sustainable fuels using solar power.
- Deforestation in the Amazon has fallen by 61% in January compared to the previous year.
- Last year, newly installed heat pumps across Europe avoided 8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Communicating your own climate action also has benefits. Not talking about your efforts is the PR equivalent of leaving money on the table. But beyond this, combating climate change requires belief, motivation, and knowledge, and communicating your positive efforts and successes helps to inspire other businesses to take actions of their own.
Gerrit Jan Konijnenberg is special MEF board advisor and initiator of sustainability activities at the Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF).