By Jasmine Crowhurst, News Sub-Editor

Research by Sussex Academics and the University of Sussex Business School has found that the widespread expectations that 5G will be a green technology are not currently backed up by strong evidence.  

The research warns that existing studies in academia and in industries that explore the energy use implications of 5G fail to provide a comprehensive overview of overall energy use impacts on 5G. The studies also overlook some potentially significant issues that wider research in communication technology and the impacts of their energy use suggests could be important to consider. 

Sussex Energy Group academics said that the widespread adoption of unlimited data subscriptions for 5G users and the facilitation of advanced and data-intensive mobile services and more sophisticated mobile gaming could encourage energy-intensive user practises and contribute to growing data traffic. These factors could counteract the energy-saving potential of 5G efficiency improvements.

Details in the newly published study in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews explain how the demand for large-scale infrastructure – to accommodate new generation mobile networks – and the shorter lifespan of smartphones leave a significant environmental impact that needs to be combatted through legislation and network design. 

The research paper warns that current studies into 5G energy use fail to properly account for:

  • The impact of the embodied energy associated with network infrastructure and user devices
  • Direct rebound effects associated with 5G-driven changes in mobile device user behaviour
  • Wider indirect energy use effects, including the scope for 5G to enable energy – savings in other areas of economic and social life

The study was funded by the Centre for Research on Energy Demand Solutions. The Centre recommends that the service raise awareness among users and make information about energy uses and practises more transparent. 

Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “There has been insufficient ‘user-centric’ work focusing on the relationship between 5G energy use and user behaviour leaving unanswered questions about how and under what conditions 5G might become energy intensive.”

Tim Foxon, Professor of Sustainability Transitions in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School, talked about how the energy required to manufacture and install network equipment and make phones is an important aspect often overlooked in 5G assessments.  

“There are encouraging signs that the industry is starting to take this issue of embodied energy more seriously, and we would hope to see this continue as the industry starts to look toward standardisation processes for 6G.”

This could involve prolonging the lifespans of infrastructure and devices, making equipment easily upgraded and improving reuse and recyclability.

Academics from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School carried out a literature review to examine the operational energy use implications of 5G, indirect energy use effects associated with 5G- driven changes in user behaviour, consumption, and production in other sectors of the economy.

Dr Laurence Williams, Research Fellow in Environmental Politics in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “We have identified a number of potentially significant shortcomings of the evidence based on the energy use implications of 5G. In the context of challenging net zero targets that demand emissions reductions across all sectors of the economy, this is a knowledge gap that needs to be addressed”.

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