COVID-19 has made one thing crystal clear: Society needs the Internet to function. During the pandemic, the Internet has been critical for buying groceries, working, educating children, getting medical care, accessing news and being entertained. The health and safety of the population depends on the reliability of the network. Since the pandemic, the number of internet users in South Africa increased by 1.7 million (+4.5%) between 2020 and 2021.All this demand for fast, reliable and diversified communication has increased pressure on countries to quickly adopt 5G—the latest generation of digital technology.
5G, which began deployment in 2019, can deliver enhanced broadband for cell phones, super fast and reliable communication, and machine-to-machine communication. It promises to be 100 times faster than 4G. But beyond speed and connectivity, 5G also has ultra low latency—latency is any delay in communications—and 1,000 times more capacity because it is expanding into new frequencies of the spectrum. This will eventually make wireless Internet possible everywhere, from smart cars to the Internet of Things (IoT), which can connect all kinds of devices and sensors through the Internet and allow them to communicate without human involvement.
5G’s potentially negative impacts on the environment
While the speed, capacity and connectivity of 5G will provide many opportunities to protect and preserve the environment, its long-term effects on the environment are unknown. However, there are already concerns that 5G could have negative effects on the environment because of its energy use, and the impacts of manufacturing new infrastructure and a multitude of new devices.
Greater energy consumption and emissions
Currently, information and communications technology is responsible for about 4 percent of global electricity consumption, and 1.4 percent of global carbon emissions. But an Ericcson report projects that by the end of 2025, 5G will have 2.6 billion subscribers; total global mobile subscriptions are expected to reach 5.8 billion by then. By 2030, IoT devices around the world could number 125 billion. At that point, information technology is expected to be responsible for one-fifth of all global electricity consumption and by 2040, it could generate 14 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. If the entire system is not energy efficient, 5G will ultimately not be sustainable.
Data storage centers that handle cloud computing and websites, and store our information use enormous amounts of energy—as much as 80 percent of total network energy use. About half of this goes towards keeping transmission equipment in base stations cool. Small cell base stations may devour three times as much power as 4G base stations.
Life cycle impacts
“…behind each byte we have mining and metal processing, oil extraction and petrochemicals, manufacturing and intermediate transports, public works (to bury the cables) and power generation with coal and gas."
The increase in greenhouse gas emissions will be due in part to the fact that consumers will need to buy new 5G mobile phones in order to take full advantage of 5G. A Swedish study calculated that a smart phone produced 45 kg of CO2 during its entire lifetime, with most of it coming from the production phase—the manufacture of integrated circuits, sourcing the raw material, production of the phone shell, then assembly and distribution. If accessories and the mobile network are included, the total life cycle impact is 68 kg CO2. The manufacture of more IoT devices and cell phones, and small cells also means more mining and use of many nonrenewable metals that are difficult to recycle.
As consumers around the world move to 5G phones, many older phones and IoT devices will be discarded if there are no buy back or recycling plans for them. This will result in enormous amounts of e-waste, which is already a huge global problem.
The full deployment of 5G could have a disruptive impact on ecosystems. A Punjab University study found that sparrows exposed to cell tower radiation for five to 30 minutes produced disfigured eggs. In Spain, the nesting, breeding and roosting of birds were disturbed by microwave radiation from a cell tower. Wireless frequencies have also been found to interfere with the navigational systems and circadian rhythms of birds, affecting migration.
Another study found that bees exposed to low-band spectrum radiation for 10 minutes suffered colony collapse disorder. And some research has found that insects, including honeybees, absorb more radiation from the mid-band and 5G spectrum. This could lead to changes in insect behavior and functions over time.
With 5G expected to require the installation of 70.2 million small cell towers by 2025—one survey found that many operators expect to deploy between 100 and 350 small cells per square kilometer (indoors and outdoors)—it is unknown what effect ubiquitous mmWave radiation could have on birds, bees and other species.
Making 5G more sustainable
There are strategies that can and should be employed to lessen the environmental impacts of 5G and make it more sustainable.
This means replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, improving grid flexibility and storage, and using carbon-capture strategies with any remaining fossil fuel power plants.
More efficient cooling
Some companies are implementing new technologies to reduce the amount of energy networks consume to cool their base stations.
Using water to cool the station instead of air consumed 10 percent of the energy of traditional air cooling. With water cooling, it was also possible to use the waste heat from the base stations for water or space heating in the buildings next to the base stations. In addition, data centers cooled with liquid reduced carbon emissions by 90 percent.
Most of the sensors incorporated into phones, computers and other electronic devices are composed of precious metals that can be harmful to the environment or human health. Some scientists are working on developing biodegradable sensors that dissolve when they are no longer needed. Such sensors could be based on paper or polylactic acid, which are biodegradable, and are already used in medical applications.
Recycling toxic materials
The biggest danger about 5G is the toxics of electronic waste. Some of the rare earths and other substances inside of phones can be reused fairly easily and can be mined. The companies that sell them should be required to buy them back at the end—it’s called producer responsibility.
Sharing Network Infrastructure
Some companies are sharing 5G network infrastructure to potentially cut 30 percent of their costs. The costs to set up small cell base stations could be reduced by half if three players share the network. Beyond cutting costs, network sharing can also reduce environmental impacts by avoiding overlapping dense networks of small cells and reducing the need for equipment and construction in cities.
Whether or not 5G will be a blessing or a curse for the environment remains to be seen as the scenarios are complex. One thing is for certain, connectivity has never been so fast, accessible and integrated in our daily lives. In the end, the capacity and information that the knowldege hungry popoulation seeks to have and to share may be the "Achilles heel" in this 5G Renaissance.