New research: The environmental case for connectivity

Telia Company has provided another piece of the puzzle which will eventually map the global ICT industry's total environmental footprint. The latest findings in a long-term research project by Telia and networks giant Ericsson, shows that the ever-increasing data volume across the world is not a catalyst for a rise in energy consumption.

"We're seeing that the data volume and the number of connected people continues to increase globally," says Dag Lundén, Environmental Manager at Technology, Telia Sweden. "And while the global energy consumption also increases, it does so in relation to the increasing number of connectivity subscriptions, not in relation to the increased data volume. However, in Sweden, a country with a well-developed ICT industry, we see a decline in energy consumption in spite of the increase in data volume. Our conclusion in this part of our research is, that the global trend will align more with the Swedish numbers as the global ICT industry develops further."

There is an on-going dispute among experts whether the increased digitalization of societies will lead to drastically higher levels of energy consumption. One argument has been that the ICT industry's environmental footprint will increase at the same rate as data volume increases. That would mean that the ICT industry faces a huge environmental footprint growth from today to 2030.

But Dag Lundén and Ericsson's Jens Malmodin say their research tells a very different story. In 2016, one of their reports showed that the Swedish ICT industry's total carbon and energy footprint is, in fact, decreasing.

"We of course have all the charts and numbers. But to narrow it down one could say that a yearly smartphone subscription, from the operator's perspective, has the same environmental effect as does driving your car for 100 kilometers. And that's only taking into account the fuel consumption. Furthermore, we can see that the footprint of the subscription is reduced over time, which in reality means that the smaller annual subscription footprint will result in even shorter comparable driving distances over time."

During 2017, Lundén and Malmodin expanded the scope of their research to include telecom operators globally.

"The same trend is clear globally too: emissions and energy consumption have increased, not in relation to data volume but because more and more people get a subscription. Again, we expect a continuous footprint reduction per subscription not only because more and more people replace older solutions with modern ones, such as Smartphones. Operators also use "clean energy" to a larger extent and technology overall is becoming more energy-effective. In other words, we're getting more bang per kilowatt-hour by the day."

Dag Lundén explains that it is vitally important that operators and others in the ICT industry monitor and disclose the industry's actual impact on the environment. Telia made its first life cycle analysis in the 1990s and the report in 2016, revealing the footprint of the Swedish ICT industry, was a milestone.

"Now we continue our research, so that we can be transparent and correct in disproving statements made here or globally about the ICT industry being a major contributor to climate change," Lundén says.

The latest research in this area can be downloaded from The Royal Institute of Technology’s digital scientific archive.