More data, higher carbon emissions: What are telecoms operators doing about it?

October 18, 2023
Every minute, over 5 billion Internet users send and upload millions of e-mails and messages and consume hundreds of thousands of hours of content. Digital technologies are directly responsible for around two percent of today’s energy-related GHG emissions. More data, higher carbon emissions: What are telecoms operators doing about it?

In Internet slang, an Internet minute refers to what happens around the world within a space of just sixty seconds on the World Wide Web. It equates to an ever-growing number of emails, texts and searches, a multitude of tweets, snaps and swipes and endless hours of streamed content or online meetings.  

Worldwide media usage in an Internet minute (as of April 2022)

Source :

Media and communications technologies drive this online activity, supported by digital infrastructure upgrades and affordable data plans, not to mention a post-pandemic push to more virtual ways of working.

And “there’s no green without digital,” as Pekka Lundmark, Nokia’s CEO, concluded at COP 26 in Glasgow in 2021. The Internet is the backbone of transformative green technologies, be they Internet of Things (IoT)-powered solutions like smart metres calculating real-time energy consumption or services like videoconferencing offering low-carbon alternatives to travel.  

Decarbonisation cannot happen without the Internet, that much is true. Such a statement dodges, however, the elephant in the room. Powering this sustainable revolution are energy hungry data centres, transmission networks and connected devices. To align with the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario, emissions must halve by 2030. That includes those generated by Internet usage.

So, what, if anything, are telecoms operators doing about it?

“The time is now. With most of the global population connected to the Internet, the telecoms industry has an opportunity to act on a massive scale when it comes to addressing global warming.”

Mathieu Horn, CEO - triPica

Digitalising the industry behind our mass digitalisation

Founded in 2016 in Paris by telecoms industry veterans, triPica is an active player in the field of telecoms vendors and boasts 70 employees. Priding itself on what they call a ‘no BS philosophy’, the company works with an impressive global portfolio of clients, offering lean and simple solutions to bring telecommunications closer the user, whilst ensuring greater sustainability as data usage continues to grow.

“Telcos have been trying to find ways to reinvent their propositions,” explains Mathieu Horn, triPica’s CEO. “Established before the digital era to address mass market models, they struggle to adopt to the new rules of the Smartphone era and services such as Netflix or Uber.”

For Horn, part of the answer lies in digitalising the industry that is facilitating our mass digitalisation. triPica’s offer resides in transformative cloud-native SaaS solutions.

“In French, we say shoemakers are the worst shod! The network has continuously evolved to embrace a data-driven world, but telcos stayed stuck in the 20th Century with an inflexible and expensive IT stack. It’s not about fixing the unfixable but starting afresh. This is how we will make the telecoms industry greener. Take the eSIM, signing up over an app cuts out the middleman and offers consumer autonomy. Traditional SIM cards demand 90,000 tonnes of plastic each year and a complex supply chain from production to delivery. Transitioning to eSIM would eliminate 54 percent of their carbon impact.

Seeking data driven efficiency

And it’s not just about digitising the industry. Operators across the world are looking at ways to reduce the carbon footprint of both their operations and their users, with artificial intelligence (AI) designed to replicate, or some would say augment, human intelligence.  

Research teams at French operator, Orange, have created an algorithm to scan and analyse technical data from base stations, the results used to reconfigure the least efficient devices to copy the settings of the most efficient. Activated only twice a year, the company claims this reduced Orange mobile network consumption in Poland by four percent in one year.1

Finnish operator, DNA, expected energy consumption to grow six to seven percent in 2021 on deploying 5G equipment and increasing capacity four- to five-fold. What they witnessed was a reduction in energy consumption on some areas of the network. Again, using data sets and AI to analyse behaviour and predict mobile data traffic requirements, the operator has been able to optimise its energy requirements.2

“Cell tower energy consumption is an area in which telcos can have a very direct impact on energy consumption,” adds Mathieu. “Some are looking at cutting down power at night for example. As data consumption grows, it may however prove difficult to balance higher bandwidth demand with limited network energy consumption.”

With that in mind, operators like the Norwegian operator, Telenor, are looking at complementary ways to address the sustainability challenge confronting them.

“What do we do as telecoms operators? We convert electricity to services. To reduce our climate impact as an industry, the single most important thing we can do is phase in renewables. The search for renewable energy and the move to greater network efficiency are like two cogs operating together.”

Kristian Hall, Chief Sustainability Officer - Telenor

Greening the grid

A main strand of the sustainability strategy developed at Telenor is to ensure the electricity it uses to deliver connected services comes from renewable sources.  

Signing renewable energy Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) is not unique to telcos. They are becoming a mainstay of corporate sustainability investment, notably for those tech giants whose data centres pull heavily on the energy grid.


Top corporate clean energy buyers – 2022

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Equally, in a country like Norway that boasts one of the world’s greenest grids, this may not seem much of a commitment but Telenor’s strategy centres on additionality.  


What is additionality?

Additionality refers to renewable energy generation that is truly new and therefore reinforcing the grid capacity with extra renewable sources rather than simply buying into what is readily available or planned.


“It’s not just about using renewable energy within our own operations,” explains Hall. “Telcos don’t have the legacy of fossil fuels like energy utilities. By demanding more renewables, this will unlock investment andultimately build a greener grid for everyone. We have a responsibility to use our leverage for environmental enablement.”

As such, in May 2022, Telenor signed a ten-year agreement to purchase power from a wind plant to be built in Sweden by the Norwegian renewable energy company, Hydro REIN.3 Supplying 330 GWh of power annually in Telenor’s home market, this equates to 86 percent of its current Norwegian power consumption.  

In further pursuit of its strategy to establish carbon-neutral business operations by 2030, in June 2023 Telenor and the Swedish multinational, Telia, announced a joint ten-year PPA with a solar cell plant in Denmark, which is due to supply 75 percent of Telia Denmark’s and Telenor’s joint TTN network’s electricity consumption by 2024.4

“We can either wait and hope for the best, or we can do something to speed up the transition. The latter, in our view, is the only viable choice.”  

Sigve Brekke, President and CEO – Telenor Group

Leveraging influence as an industry

It sounds great, but additionality reveals other challenges. Emissions per person are much higher in an industrialised and highly 'connected' countries, like Norway. As already established, this is where the energy grid is also greener.  

The GSM Association, commonly referred to as the GSMA, is a non-profit industry organisation, formed to ease cooperation, uphold standards and support interoperability between those using Global System for Mobile (GSM) technology. Today, its role has grown to include driving sustainability initiatives and fostering innovation. According to their Mobile industry position paper: Access to renewable electricity (November 2022), to date 50 of their members - representing 63 percent of the mobile industry by revenue - have committed to science-based targets (SBTs)5, which they hope to achieve in part via access to renewable energies.  

However, several factors are at play.  

Firstly, whilst the number of Internet users increased sixfold in Europe between 2000 and 2020, it multiplied by 21 in Asia and by 139 in Africa.  

Secondly, complementary IEA analysis suggests annual renewable energy investment in emerging markets needs to increase from less than USD 150 billion in 2020 to over USD 1 trillion by the end of the 2020s to avoid being locked into fossil fuel grid infrastructure.6

“Whereas Europe’s deregulated energy market allows private agreements between two companies for PPAs, even cross border, that’s generally not possible in Asia,” explains Hall. “Currently, Telenor relies on International Renewable Energy Certificate (I-REC) schemes in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. It counts towards our sustainability targets but doesn’t generate the additionality we are seeking.”

The GSMA report equally advocates the use of corporate PPAs in emerging economies. With 130 countries committed to reducing their emissions by 20507, a public-private partnership between governments and the private sector seems to be what is needed to accelerate renewable electricity investment opportunities.

Working cross-industry

Launched by US President Biden and the World Economic Forum (WEF), the First Movers Coalition also believes in collaboration, bringing together companies across eight hard-to-abate sectors - such as aluminium, trucking, cement and concrete, shipping, steel and aviation – to use their purchasing power to create early markets for innovative clean technologies, including renewable energies.

It is no surprise that telcos such as Telenor are also working with the coalition, as are those governments who have committed to reducing their national carbon emissions and see a greener grid essential to achieving success.

“The global mobile industry and its 5.2 billion customers can be a catalyst to trigger this change,’ concludes Brekke. “Other industries can then more easily follow once current regulatory and investment obstacles have been solved.”

Favouring device recycling

And how about telecoms operators using their unique interface with consumers in another way?

“Let’s not forget,” reminds Horn, “operators are also an essential player in device distribution. Pushing for subscription renewal via phone upgrades largely contributes to shortened lifecycles. This is where operators can also limit waste and therefore emissions.”

The network is indeed an entry point into greener telecoms, the hardware operating on that network another. Handset developers are taking their own strides to imbed sustainability throughout the entire design and production lifecycle.  

At Galaxy of Impact, the Samsung-hosted event in January 2023, Mark Newton, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Samsung Electronics America, highlighted that the company was, “working diligently to extend the lifecycle of our devices to encourage users to reliably experience the optimised performance of the Galaxy for as long as possible.”8

But how does can this co-exist with operators offering plans that encourage upgrades? For Horn, it can’t.  

“Telcos need to stop pushing those offers, but also more widely promote device recycling, both to get back older devices and sell refurbished ones. The latest smartphone model is not that different from the model that came out three years ago and the quality of those devices, at least for some brands, make them more eligible for refurbishment.”

Telcos are afforded great leverage thanks to their interface with governments and corporates, which they are using to green the grid. With over 5 billion users, do they not also have a responsibility to educate?

Hall agrees. “There’s growing consumer preference for green services but still a lack of awareness of everything that contributes to our rising emissions.”

Offering sustainable mobile plans

“Consumer awareness is an important consideration for triPica in the work we undertake with our clients,” agrees Horn. “Energy providers are taking an active role today in passing the right messages, but more can be done by telcos. They have both financial means and tremendous customer access.”

Putting those intentions into practice, triPica worked with the French mobile phone operator and Internet service provider, Bouygues Telecom, to launch Source in March 2022. Europe’s first eco-responsible mobile operator, Source seeks to make the end user a real actor in the reduction of its personal carbon footprint.

Shown how the same services generate more CO2 when running on 4G than on a WIFI connection, users are incentivised to be frugal with their 4G usage by Source turning all unused data into ‘waterdrops’ at the end of each month. The user then sprinkles these drops over the projects and charities of their choice in the mobile app.

Early results show that 90 percent of Source customers have unused data at the end of each month. Six hundred non-profit organisations have already benefited from these ‘drops’ that are, of course, transformed in real money.

“Consumers are becoming prosumers,” says Horn. “What Bouygues telecom is doing with Source will likely be imitated in other countries. These kinds of plans could also be an opportunity for telcos to gain back customers’ trust and regain some of those Net Promotor Score (NPS) points lost over the years.”

Awareness is one thing, change is another

Energy was formerly a commodity accorded little attention. Electricity was there. It powered things. People hardly cared where it came from, how it was produced or understood its pricing structure. Then, a revolution happened. With the arrival of smart metres, consumers wanted to know where it came from and how to curb their monthly bill.

“We see increasing convergence between energy and telco utilities,” explains Horn. “Telcos can wield great leverage in greening our grid moving forward but their future will be in the hands of consumers. It has a responsibility to educate them.”

Seneca once said, “everything that exceeds the bounds of moderation has an unstable foundation.” It’s one thing to ask what telecoms operators doing about more data equating to higher carbon emissions. Is the question not also what is being done to consume less data? Decarbonising the telecoms industry is essential but with a growing population and our current path to halving our carbon emissions by 2030 not always smooth, how about examining – and moderating – our current data hungry habits?

With millions of people never having known anything other than an Internet minute busier than a New York minute, future consumers may want to know more about where their Internet is coming from, but how ready are they to curb their usage or not have that latest mobile phone?

This article was originally published at Telenor Listen Up!