Why tech holds key to addressing climate change crisis

Heated arguments have been exchanged at the ongoing global conference on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland. One of the centerpieces of the talks on how to remedy the current dire climate situation is acceleration of green technologies that engender more renewable sources of energy.

Aside from urgent calls for adoption of innovative approaches to generation of clean energy to replace the polluting fossil fuels, it is emerging that latest technologies hold the key to unlocking the strategies that can tame climate change whose disastrous impacts are already being felt across the globe.

 Experts say technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) can significantly boost efforts aimed at curbing global carbon emissions.

Evidence already exists on how AI can potentially be one of the solutions needed.  Some technology companies and governments have in the past five years been tapping AI algorithms to inform decisions, predictions and recommendations by analysing climate patterns in various data sets.

A report by Networks company, Nokia and GSMA Intelligence indicates that communication service providers (CSPs) around the world hold the view that using AI software is central to reducing fast-rising network energy demand and emissions, spurred by internet traffic growth. 

Most CSPs surveyed in the research noted that energy efficiency is either “very important” or “extremely important” in their network transformation strategy to counter rising energy consumption and emissions.

Along with the use of renewables, AI energy management software is regarded as central to many CSP strategies to shrink their carbon footprint, as their solutions’ can be used quickly and effectively across an entire network with little to no human intervention.  

GSMA Intelligence, which focuses on global mobile operator data insights, found that 83 percent of CSPs surveyed see energy efficiency as a major network transformation driver that will grow in importance as 5G is operationalized by industry; while 67 percent expect their energy costs to rise over the next three years based on current trends. 

Global internet traffic has risen exponentially in recent years due to a convergence of factors like heavy video streaming, video conferencing from remote working and online gaming as 4G and now 5G become a larger share of the mobile customer base.

But such activities require more energy consuming telco equipment and bandwidth capacity, as well as large amounts of data stored in an ever growing number of energy consuming data centers.

“As businesses and enterprises tap advanced 5G services, like network slicing, further demands will be made on telco networks, data centers, and energy consumption,” the survey shows.

   Many CSP respondents acknowledged they are still in the early planning and testing stages of getting their AI efforts off the ground with respect to energy efficiency.

Still, nearly 50 percent of CSP respondents said they expect to achieve energy savings of 10 percent to 20 percent over the next two years as AI energy solutions are rolled out and optimized.

Volker Held, Head of Marketing for Managed Services, Cloud and Network Services at Nokia, told Digital Business that reducing carbon footprints is an important challenge for the telecommunications industry, given rising internet traffic trends and its implications for energy consumption.

“AI solutions hold the promise of realizing quick and substantial energy efficiency gains and ensure we fully live up to our environmental and social responsibilities,” he said.

The study notes that using zero-touch automation, AI programs can improve energy savings by closely aligning equipment usage patterns with real-time network demands; and identifying performance anomalies in underperforming network equipment that saps energy resources and requires replacement.  

Beyond curtailing energy demand, AI-powered energy solutions are expected to drive other important outcomes, such as reducing the number of on-site visits personnel have to make to troubleshoot network issues.

“AI has clear and tangible benefits to improving the energy efficiency of telecom networks and is a big part of the solution in driving sustainable 5G networks. It’s important to deploy AI early in order to train the algorithms and continually optimize network ops and costs over the long run,” said Tim Hatt, Head of Research and Consulting at GSMA Intelligence.

Kenya’s Safaricom, which partnered with Nokia and Huawei to launch 5G, has said in its sustainability report that by the end of 2020, it was at a 9 per cent reduction in carbon footprint.

MTN, which operates in more than 20 countries says it aims to achieve a 47 percent average reduction in absolute emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2040.

With presence in eight African countries, Vodafone says it is moving towards ensuring that network waste is reused, sold, or recycled and 100 per cent of the electricity used in its networks comes from renewable sources.

The white paper by Nokia and GSMA Intelligence projects that the implementation of mobile and digital technologies, like 5G, 4G, private networks, and IoT sensors, could catalyze large carbon emission savings in manufacturing, power and energy, transportation, and buildings; all of which account for around 80 percent of global carbon emissions.  

“Annual manufacturing carbon savings from the rollout of smart factories at scale could save the equivalent of 28 million roundtrip flights from London to Los Angeles in a year; while energy savings from the widespread use of smart meters in homes, by more efficiently using resources when they are actually needed, would be enough to power 97 million homes in a year,” the research says. 

By 2030, AI could help cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent, according to a recent study by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for Microsoft, which is developing machine learning products for the climate change market.

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