UK operator Telefonica O2 put its ‘green’ stake in the ground in March 2020 by announcing plans to dramatically reduce carbon emissions across its business and network by 2025. In a report released in August, O2 explained how 5G technology will help it reach its goals for 2025 – and well beyond.

In the new report, O2 made the case that 5G will play a crucial role in four key vertical markets – i.e., utilities/home energy, transport, manufacturing and healthcare. Among the report’s headline findings:

  • By utilizing 5G and connected solutions, the four targeted industries could avoid up to 269 megatons of CO2 by 2035 – nearly the equivalent of England’s total emissions in 2018.
  • The greatest impact will be in the utilities and home energy sector, where 5G can help foster a ‘greener’ national energy grid and power a new generation of smart home applications. In total, O2 estimates a total CO2 savings potential of 181 megatons. In particular, O2 estimates that smart thermostats and heat pumps have the potential to be the most important 5G-powered contributors to greenhouse gas reductions.
  • 5G-powered autonomous vehicles and new transportation management systems can reduce reliance on traditional fossil-fueled vehicles, eliminating 43 megatons of CO2 emissions. O2 believes that enabling employees to work from home, even beyond COVID-19, represents an enormous opportunity for CO2 reduction.
  • Manufacturing industry improvements such as automated production lines could eliminate 40 megatons of CO2. 5G will therefore facilitate “higher flexibility, lower cost and shorter lead times for factory floor production reconfiguration, layout changes and alteration.”
  • New e-health applications, enabled by 5G IoT devices, can reduce carbon emissions by 6 megatons – while also improving patient outcomes. The gamut of 5G-enabled applications includes connected ambulances, remote/virtual appointments, predictive maintenance of critical medical equipment and 5G-connected inventory management devices.

5G rollout plans for O2

The O2 report does raise some questions. For starters, O2 assumes very high levels of 5G penetration in the UK over the coming years in order to achieve the carbon emissions it expects. However, on that front, O2 appears on track thus far, announcing in August that it is ahead of schedule on its 5G rollout plans, having reached 60 cities and towns in June, ahead of its 50-community commitment.

A murkier question is which of these applications specifically require 5G technology and which applications could be powered by 4G/LTE, or even other technologies such as WiFi.

In addition, O2 also acknowledges that 5G carries its own carbon reduction challenges. The prospect of millions of 5G-connected devices and the requirement to build new cell towers to meet rising demand for 5G is likely to cause an upward push on energy consumption.

To that end, O2 points to the need to rely on renewable energy sources and to share infrastructure with other operators where possible. Case in point: the UK’s Shared Rural Network being jointly developed by O2, EE, Three and Vodafone.

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