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What is the hidden cost of 5G?

Mandy Henk, Guest Post. 18 November 2019, 5:00 am
What is the hidden cost of 5G?

Huawei wants you to believe that 5G can help save the planet. Of course they do. Across the globe the public is driving a world changing reckoning. Fueled by reactions to the catastrophic climate consequences we're starting to face, this reckoning is transforming how we do business and how we build infrastructure. Huawei wants to be seen on the right side of history. 

Building 5G isn't going to lead us in the direction we need to go, not if we take seriously what scientists are telling us. Expanding our network infrastructure will spark a huge expansion of our data-driven economy. 5G means more devices in more places, doing more things, connecting more people. An expansion into 5G is a step into a future that is more computerised, more data-focused, and more risky.

Building a 5G network is a choice. It's a choice about what kind of future we want. It's a choice about how to respond to the social and environmental challenges before us. There are a lot of numbers that matter here: how much carbon the ICT sector emits; how much carbon we have left to burn if we are to meet our carbon reduction goals; how that carbon should be used and by whom. 

But this is a time to think and talk about risk, not numbers. When it comes to climate, numbers give a sense of unearned objectivity. What matters is risk--who gets to decide how much risk is acceptable, who bears the consequences when risks are realised, and who gets the benefits of the risky activity.

The risk I see with 5G is that it will drive an expansion of our carbon emissions. The cradle-to-grave impact of more devices, more data centres, and more network traffic is a risk that seems reckless and dangerous, given what the science tells us about climate change and other environmental challenges.

Right now, with our existing network, data centres are expanding so fast that they are contributing to an overall increase in electricity use. Even when data centres rely on renewable energy, the overall expansion in power consumption means that rather than displacing fossil fuels, we are just expanding the total amount of energy we use. The consequence of this is that our investments in renewables aren't succeeding in reducing our dependence on fossil energy.  To begin shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure, we have to stop expanding and begin contracting. We have to use less energy. 

Huawei and its allies making sustainability claims sound to me like debtors, begging for one last splurge because they claim it will help them save money in the long run. But just as the first thing to do when trapped in a financial hole is to stop spending, so we need to stop emitting to get out our hole. 

There will be places where it will make sense to use our remaining carbon emissions to build new infrastructure--and those will be projects where the carbon reductions are immediate, inherent, and at scale. Transportation and renewable energy projects are likely to meet this criteria. 5G is not. Rather, 5G will lead to more devices, more data, and more emissions.

Climate change is hard because it calls on us to start looking at the world differently. Reducing emissions urgently and at-scale means looking at the world through a new paradigm--one focused on building carbon neutral infrastructure and reducing our emissions as fast as possible. For a very long time, economic growth and technological development have framed how we understand the world and our place in it. But now it's time to learn to think and live differently.  

Part of what makes it hard to talk about climate change is that we need to give up some very good things. As a consumer, I love my devices. But using those devices incurs a huge environmental cost. Maintaining and expanding my computer-driven lifestyle isn't so important that it's worth more than the lives and well-being of those who bear the costs of my carbon emissions. 

I'm sad about that and I know lots of other people are too. Few of us are skilled at managing our emotions, and sadness and grief are hard to process. It is sad that 5G is one of the projects we should set aside so we can focus on emissions reducing infrastructure. It is sad that the vision of a worldwide Internet of Things isn't going to be possible right now. 

But part of how we make this easier for everyone is by not building infrastructure that will make it harder. If we build 5G, we will make it easy to keep expanding the carbon footprint of ICT. Building a 5G network will further entrap all of us in a system designed for the old way of living in the world. 

That's why we should put the brakes on 5G. Until we have limited the expansion of energy use related to growth in the ICT sector, we simply have to stop digging the hole and stop using the charge card. Instead, it's time to start exploring what innovation looks like when it's focused not on economic growth and the digitisation of everything, but rather on living safely together on the only planet we have.

That doesn't mean that in the future we can't try 5G again. But right now we have other responsibilities. That's where we need to put our carbon and our time. 

Mandy is a writer, librarian, and climate activist. 


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Noel Reid 25 November 2019, 2:18 pm

But Mandy, I fear we'll have to give up too many "very good things"; ultimately pushing civilisation backwards. I'm really concerned because a few scientists believe carbon level changes are a trailing indicator, not a leading one. And, of course, from the beginning of scientific endeavour, it's only taken one scientist to prove the general consensus wrong...

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