Telefonica says it has knocked 20 years off its target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across its four main markets including Spain and Brazil. In its report on sustainability (2019 Integrated Report), Telefonica provides details of its green initiatives across sections of the network from base stations to devices. The operator made the move as part of COP26 Race to Zero, a GSMA-backed UN climate change initiative encouraging companies, nations, and financiers to deliver a net-zero carbon footprint.
We had the chance to speak to Marco Masip Fernandez, head Environmental, Social and Corporate governance- investor relations and reporting to clarify some aspects. However important details are still missing and do not allow us to draw a more complete picture of the real progress made in terms of energy efficiency.
Telefonica works with entities such as the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) to establish its science-based targets (SBTi) net-zero and sustainability goals while the audit to evaluate the implementation and performance is performed by the CDP organization which requires an investment of 2 people for 2 months at Telefonica to support the audit. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is a “joint initiative by CDP, the UN Global Compact (UNGC), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and WWF intended to increase corporate ambition on climate action by mobilizing companies to set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets consistent with the level of decarbonization required by science to limit warming to less than 1.5ºC / 2°C compared to preindustrial temperatures”.
The main environmental aspects of the network are the consumption of energy and waste generation, although Telefonica also reports other impacts such as noise and water consumption.
In 2019, energy consumption was 6,958,516 MWh, of which 94.5% was electricity and 5.5% was fuel, with Spain and Brazil being the most significant countries in this respect. To track progress, service providers typically use Wh/B. Telefonica reported 115.2 MWh/PB based on 6,958,516 MWh for 60,406 PB of transmitted data. Moreover, service providers account for the source of their energy breaking out that from renewable energy.
While reporting power consumption as a function of carried traffic is important, we need to be careful in interpreting such metrics. Wireless protocols are designed to pack more bits for over the air transmission which continues to increase with every successive generation. We have also seen the measures vendors and service providers take in order to keep power consumption in check. A metric such as Wh/B, or Joule/bit, is bound to decrease but the overall demand for power is not decreasing.
Radio Access Network
Three key elements account for the power requirements of mobile base stations: the number of frequency carriers, the bandwidth of the carrier, and the number of antennas at the cell site. To achieve gigabit per second speed, operators deploy more spectrum, wider channel bandwidth, and a higher number of antennas.
In order to minimize the impact of network deployment, Telefonica indicates that RAN sharing infrastructure significantly reduces the impact of its sector on the environment. Therefore,
whenever possible, Telefonica co-locates base stations with other operators but did not indicate how many it is already sharing. Another measure it to use a mix of approaches from deploying its own renewable energy sources such as solar and wind to ensuring to entering into purchase program agreements with renewable source providers such as Acciona. There again it seems the percentage of base stations running on green energy is relatively low.
The operator said a 50 percent reduction in its global CO2 emissions in 2019 meant it had already achieved a goal originally set for 2025. As a result, it expects to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, far sooner than its initial 2050 target. In 2019, the operator cut CO2 emissions from its global operations by 3.2 million tons and is targeting a 10 million ton reduction in 2025. Unfortunately, important details such as how many base stations Telefonica operates and what the percentage is running on renewables are not disclosed which makes it hard to estimate how far the operator has gone in transforming its network carbon footprint.
Impact of 5G
As we described in our previous blog, 5G consumes a lot of power to provide the gigabit speed it promises. A 5G site could consume double the power of an LTE site. Operators seeking to deploy 5G find themselves in a bind, especially in controlling operational expenditures that chip at their margins. Telefonica like other operators’ argument is that the cost of delivering a unit of data, measured in petabyte (A petabyte is 10¹⁵ bytes of digital information) as we mentioned previously. Telefonica claims 81.6% of its network runs on renewable energy but the report fails to provide what percentage of the RAN is on renewable energy.
Energy Saving for the Fixed Network
Telefonica claims it is switching off its copper network in favor of fiber optic which is said to be 85% more energy efficient with a goal to reach 100% of the homes passed in Spain by 2024. It says it has saved 346 GWh over the last four years, which means avoiding the emission into the atmosphere of 93,297 tons of CO2 equivalent to the carbon captured by 1,543,000 trees. In addition, the deployment of fiber has allowed Telefónica to close one copper facility a day, reusing much of the equipment and recycling all the material, as part of its commitment to the circular economy. The target is to have 100% of retail customers in fiber before 2025. The transformation is financed with the 2019 1 billion euros Green Bond. A similar effort to replacer copper with fiber is said to be in progress in the Sao Paulo market in Brazil.