5G, a fundamental pillar of the digital and ecological transition | 5G: the future is now | Technology

Progress can have negative consequences, although technology can solve them. Since the first industrial revolution, man has seen how technological advances, from the steamboat to the invention of the automobile or the exponential use of the Internet, imply prosperity and social progress. But this has always been associated with an increase in pollution. The fourth Industrial Revolution, in which we find ourselves immersed now, is changing that logic. It does so at a critical moment: the coronavirus has weakened the economy and we are in a cycle of expansion that technological progress can amplify. But it has also shown the fragility of society in the face of natural catastrophes, highlighting climate change as one of the great challenges in the years to come. We have to grow more and we have to pollute less. Fortunately, we now have an ally to achieve both: 5G.

The report of ericsson Connectivity and Climate Change It concludes that the use of 5G technology in four high-emission sectors in Europe could generate annual savings equivalent to removing one in seven cars, that is, more than 35 million vehicles, from the roads of the European Union. How can this be?

The factories of the future will be more efficient, more flexible and will reduce shipping and logistics.
The factories of the future will be more efficient, more flexible and will reduce shipping and logistics.Gorodenkoff Productions OU (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

As an open innovation platform, 5G is going to have a direct impact on virtually all industrial sectors. Greater data sharing can open the doors to smart manufacturing, improved transportation systems, and smart power grids. Decision making in all these industrial processes will be based on data and will be taken in real time. All this means less energy use and, therefore, a reduction in pollution.

But these conclusions are not only noted on paper, there are already places that show that the use of 5G saves energy. The FEricsson 5G Smart Factory (in Lewisville, USA), was designed to use a 24% less energy, 75% less indoor water and 97% less carbon emissions compared to other similar buildings. These achievements have led it to be awarded twice in 2021 by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

“This case illustrates that we can do good things for the environment, but also that we can change the way we structure manufacturing in the future. We can be much more flexible in manufacturing and be closer to the final consumer, avoiding many shipments”, he explains. Borje Ekholm, CEO of Ericsson.

5G technology is vital to achieving these decarbonisation goals, which will be difficult to achieve unless the deployment of digital infrastructure in Europe is accelerated.

Borje Ekholm, CEO of Ericsson

The factories of the future will be more efficient, more flexible and will reduce shipping and logistics. But Ericsson’s at the moment is not the norm, but the exception. The deployment of 5G in Europe is not yet complete and must be accelerated in order to meet the decarbonization objectives set for the continent by 2030. “This new analysis shows that connectivity, and especially 5G technology, is vital to achieve these decarbonisation goals, which will be difficult to achieve unless the deployment of digital infrastructure in Europe is accelerated”, Ekholm points out.

Ericsson's 5G Smart Factory in Lewisville, USA, was designed to use 24% less energy.
Ericsson’s 5G Smart Factory in Lewisville, USA, was designed to use 24% less energy.ericsson

Johan Rocktrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, agrees with the diagnosis. He believes that 5G is an enabling technology, which will allow other environmentally beneficial developments to unfold: “from providing the means to innovate in different sectors to popularizing driverless transport for heavy-duty vehicles. Even make them more energy efficient, with the popularization of carbon-free digital electric transport.”

Rocktröm recalls the importance of the international objective (sealed in the Paris Agreement) of limiting future global warming to 1.5 degrees since the pre-industrial era. “At the time it was a kind of goal to see how far the economy could cope. But the current evidence is so clear that today we know that those 1.5 degrees Celsius actually represent a biophysical limit, beyond which we will have very damaging impacts on the economy and livelihoods of humans and all species on Earth.”

If the different cutting-edge technologies that exist today are combined [5G, energías renovables, coches eléctricos, clean tech…] and are applied sector by sector, it is possible to reduce emissions by half.

Johan Rocktröm, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

It may seem with these data that we are doomed to failure, but it is not. The same year that the Paris Agreement (2015) was signed, the International Energy Agency indicated that solar energy would be more expensive than fossil fuels until 2040. Technological advances were determined to correct it. Right now, solar is the cheapest energy source in almost all of the world. This is so thanks to technological advances, which have developed more efficient panels in record time.

The use of 5G technology could generate annual savings equivalent to retiring one in seven cars in some of the high-emission sectors in Europe.
The use of 5G technology could generate annual savings equivalent to retiring one in seven cars in some of the high-emission sectors in Europe.Alex Potemkin (Getty Images)

Science and technology are paving the way to return to the path of 1.5. To achieve this we would have to cut our emissions in half in the next decade. “But is that possible?” asks Rocktröm. He answers himself by citing the report Exponential Roadmap. 36 solutions for 2030: “If you combine the different cutting-edge technologies that exist today [5G, energías renovables, coches eléctricos, clean tech…] and they are applied sector by sector, it is possible to reduce emissions by half”.

The technological advances they have brought in the past many positive aspects, but some negative externalities. But in the current ecosystem that logic has been broken and the side effects are no longer tolerable. The highway to tomorrow cannot come with tolls. The positive thing is that this highway is still under construction, and the companies that are building it have this idea in mind. “Companies like Ericsson, at the digital frontier, are very connected to the fabric of modern society, so I think this is a great opportunity. And a responsibility”, says the scientist.