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How 5G should reduce CO2 emissions

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

The 67th Asut Lunch Forum took place on 3 June 2021. The topic of discussion was the expansion of the 5G network and its opportunities and risks in connection with climate protection.

Photo: ©valdisskudre

As is well known, opinions differ on the expansion of the 5G network. Asut, the Swiss Telecommunications Association, has taken a clear position on this. Only recently, the association called for simpler approvals for the expansion of the 5G network. Without an expansion, there is a risk of congestion of the 4G network and thus a data jam. This was also the topic of the virtually held 67th Asut Lunch Forum on 3 June 2021, which focused on the question of what opportunities and risks 5G could pose for climate protection. Peter Grütter, President of Asut, opened and moderated the event.

The first speaker was Jan Bieser, researcher for digitalisation and sustainability at the University of Zurich and KTH Stockholm. He presented the results of a study he had worked on together with Empa, Swisscom and Swisscleantech. The first part of the study was the question of how many greenhouse gases the operation of the 5G network would generate. Currently, the Swiss mobile network, largely based on 2G to 4G, would "cost" 30 grams of carbon dioxide per gigabyte of data transmitted. With the expansion of the fifth generation of mobile communications, this value could fall, as Bieser illustrated with a graph.

Reduction potential to exceed footprint

How 5G could limit emissions in the future was the subject of the second part of the study. Jan Bieser sees concrete CO2 reduction potential in four application areas. One of these is automated driving, which could optimise the routes of vehicles. Bieser also mentioned flexible working - not only in the form of remote working, but also on the road, for example on the train or bus. The last two areas are a so-called "smart grid" in the network infrastructure and precision farming, i.e. the application of 5G in agriculture. How farmers can benefit from 5G, drones and autonomous vehicles in the future has already been demonstrated by Sunrise UPC, Agrsocope and others at a joint event, as you can read here.

Jan Bieser, Forschender an der Uni Zürich. (Source: UZH)

Jan Bieser then cleared up what he said was a widespread misconception. Many people believe that 5G simply means "more data". However, the applications he mentioned would not actually benefit from a larger amount of data, Bieser said. Rather, the advantages lie in low latency and the high reliability and mobility that 5G brings with it. According to Bieser, the combined reduction potential of these four areas is greater than the carbon footprint of the entire 5G infrastructure.

"If you are worried about radiation, you should start with your own mobile phone".

Res Witschi, Delegate for Sustainable Digitalisation at Swisscom, then had the floor. The demands on the mobile network have changed dramatically. Data traffic has multiplied by a factor of 100 in the last decade. "Imagine that happening on the roads," Witschi described. He also mentioned common reservations about the 5G network. Among other things, he explicitly mentioned the issue of radiation exposure.

Res Witschi, Delegate for Sustainable Digitalisation at Swisscom. (Source: Screenshot Swisscom)

Witschi showed a graph showing the radiation exposure of various devices. The highest radiation would come from mobile devices. This would be followed by laptops, WLAN routers and similar devices. Mobile phone antennas would also pose a risk, but would land in the middle of the field in comparison. "If you are worried about radiation, you should start with your own mobile phone," Witschi summed up.

By using adaptive antennas, exposure could also be reduced by a factor of five, the delegate explained, citing a Belgian study. CO2 emissions could also be reduced by 86 per cent. There are often reservations about the frequencies of a 5G network: It is often said that they are new and not sufficiently tested. However, the same frequencies are already used in mobile communications today and are well researched.

On the other side of the debate, however, criticism of a 5G expansion is sometimes fierce. Currently, for example, there is resistance to the new regulation of the radiation calculation of adaptive antennas. (

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