Telecom sector transformation to a net-zero economy is achievable and has already begun

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To hold off some of the worst climate impacts and avoid irreversible damage to our societies, economies, and the natural world, we must hold temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This requires halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and hitting net-zero emissions by 2050. With the growing importance of the data community, companies in this sector are becoming increasingly engaged in the drive to sustainable digital infrastructure.

Greenhouse gas emissions are categorised into three groups or ‘Scopes’ by the most widely used international accounting tool, the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol. Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling consumed by the reporting company. Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain.

“The larger telecoms companies are very much embracing this,” Andie Stephens, associate director at The Carbon Trust says. “Companies like Vodaphone, BT and O2 have been on a sustainability journey for ten years, and they have understood and embraced it and made it part of their corporate business.

“In the telecom sector, the GSMA has been highly active in pushing the climate change agenda with its members. Last year they were encouraging all their members to sign up and report against CDP. The leading companies have been doing this for years, but it is getting the bulk of them on board that is the challenge. That has been extraordinarily successful, and this year they are focusing on encouraging them to commit to science-based targets.

“We have been working increasingly with a lot of companies who have decided they want to set science-based targets, and the drive behind science-based targets is that it forces you to measure your scope, 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Some companies had not measured scope 3 and did not have a good grasp of it, so it forced them to do that. If their scope 3 emissions were significant, which is defined as more than 40 per cent, then they need to set a science-based target for them. That forces you to engage with your suppliers to help them reduce their emissions or look at where they can reduce emissions, and then your suppliers engage with their suppliers. It has a cascading effect, and we are beginning to see a ripple effect happening and getting industries’ support.”

 According to Stephens, the ICT sector is in a strong position to be able to decarbonise rapidly because most of its emissions come from electricity use. “It is much easier to decarbonise the ICT sector than it is to decarbonise aviation or cement production, but it is a much smaller proportion than any of those other sectors.”

The value of science-based targets

Science-based targets have become the globally accepted standard for companies setting carbon reduction targets. Targets are considered science-based if they align with what the latest climate science says is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – to limit global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. 

“The concept of science-based targets is what does the world need to do to decarbonise?” Stephens says. “If we are going to keep global temperatures below two degrees, or ideally below one and a half, then we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we need to do it pretty rapidly. There are pathways for this in what needs to happen globally, and the science-based targets are what is the company’s role within that? What is my fair share, if you like, of that global carbon budget? What do I need to do to play my part in that decarbonisation pathway?

“At the country level, the UK, for example, set a net-zero target for 2050. So, a company is asking, what do I need to do to decarbonise my operations, looking at my scope, 1, 2 and scope 3, to be in line with what the world needs to do. That has resonated with people because it feels like this is a big problem.”

The ICT trajectory is showing approximately a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions over ten years, and that is quite challenging. Still, companies are stepping up to that, according to Stephens. “When they set a public, corporate target, it changes behaviour because board-level signs up to it,” he says. “You can engage employees around it, and you can set specific decarbonisation programmes. You then start looking at electricity and diesel emissions of fleet vehicles, buildings, refrigerant gases and then deliver detailed action plans for how they are going to reach that target. The target is not an end. The target drives that behaviour, and as I said earlier, it helps drive that behaviour through the supply chain, which is significant and crucial.”

Measuring the impact

The Carbon Trust is a global leader in science-based targets, having worked in this area with more than 75 companies worldwide in a variety of sectors. They are also members of the Technical Advisory Group of the Science Based Targets initiative. “We are an independent, non-profit organisation that has been around for nearly 20 years and we work largely with companies to help them measure and reduce their carbon emissions, and also with governments on policy initiatives around carbon,” Stephens explained. “We have been working with a lot of the major telecom companies and other IT companies on helping to measure their scope 1, 2 and 3 and set science-based targets. That is helpful, I think, for the companies to have an independent advisor, who will keep them honest, but also provide technical expertise around the accounting and getting through the process and mechanism of setting science-based targets.”

At the heart of compliance is measuring or understanding emissions, something that has often been problematic within the ICT community. “When you think about greenhouse gases, it is the CO2 going into the atmosphere,” Stephens continues. “However, you do not physically measure it; you use effective proxies. For ICT companies, the most significant impact will be their electricity use. So, you take how many kilowatt-hours electricity they use, and then convert that into the equivalent CO2 that is produced when that electricity is generated.

“Similarly, you would look at the total litres of diesel used and how much CO2 is emitted when you burn a litre of diesel. We do not physically measure the gases, but we measure the activity multiplied by a factor, a lot of that is well established and reasonably precise, certainly for corporate scope 1 and 2 emissions.”

Leading companies such as Vodafone, BT and O2 know how much electricity they are using because they pay for the electricity bills. The greyer areas are where mobile operators have a mast on the roof of an office building where they do not directly pay for the electricity. The landlord will pay it, and they will compensate them. “What they are doing is estimating what the electricity use is based on their other base stations, knowing what equipment is there,” Stephens says. “From a company level it is pretty accurate, there are those that have errors, but if you scale that up to a global level, you have to make some estimates because the data does not cover absolutely everything, but you can get a robust estimate.

“You can see quite a lot of alarmist reports which will say that it is going to use all the energy in the world, and my role at the Carbon Trust is to try and help the world decarbonise. I think it is not as alarmist as some of those pictures paint, but the industry is addressing the issues. The big telecoms companies and the big data centre companies are moving to renewables; they have renewable targets or power purchase agreements or renewable certificates, and because energy is a high cost, the economics will drive them to be more energy-efficient and to keep those costs under control.”





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