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Global Telecom Infrastructure Sustainability Trends

Climate change is top of mind within many boardrooms, as executive leaders consider how to react to the predictable new government mandates. Some organizations around the globe have already created climate-related targets for reaching net-zero carbon emissions, including forward-looking telecom service providers.

"These telco operators are at the intersection of communications and information technology, putting them in a unique position to offer connectivity and technological solutions that are not only lowering their own carbon emissions but also the emissions of their customers," said Kim Johnson, principal analyst at ABI Research.

Telecom Infrastructure Sustainability Market Development

Each of the market leaders has transitioned to using more than 50 percent renewable energy for global purchased electricity, and two have reached 100 percent penetration.

The use of renewable energy has reduced the leaders’ total carbon emissions by 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2e), which is equivalent to removing the CO2 emissions of 1.8 million passenger vehicles for one year, or 19.4 million barrels of oil consumed.

According to the ABI assessment, all telecom operators need to focus on the largest source of carbon emissions, which is the energy consumption of their communication networks.

The most sustainable companies, though, have a comprehensive strategy, including the deployment of technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and automation.

Plus, an in-depth waste recycling program, executive employee compensation tied to climate targets, and active engagement with technology suppliers and large enterprise customers.

Deutsche Telekom finished first overall in the ABI assessment, followed by Telefónica, Vodafone, and KPN. Deutsche Telekom has received numerous awards globally and regionally for its sustainability reporting.

The company also emerged as a leader in European 5G and fiber, while its subsidiary, T-Mobile US, also a leader in 5G, announced in early 2022 that it had become the first U.S. provider to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, helping the global Deutsche Telekom Group reach 100 percent renewables worldwide.

T-Mobile reported zero percent renewable energy use just a few years ago in 2017, and this transition to 100 percent occurred during a historic merger with Sprint.

Telefónica led the index in several areas, such as energy efficiency, waste recycled, eco-design, and green bonds, while Vodafone had strong performances in energy efficiency, waste recycled, overall sustainability reporting, and conversion of fleet vehicles to electric vehicles.

KPN, an over-achiever in sustainability, has been using 'green electricity' since 2011 and has been carbon neutral since 2015. KPN was the smallest operator in the index and did not lead in network upgrades, 5G deployment, or scale of impact -- however, the company is a global sustainability leader from every other perspective.

The mainstream selections, such as AT&T, Verizon, and Orange, were all very strong in 5G and fiber deployment, and these companies led the index, along with SK Telecom, for network upgrades. However, the mainstream companies lagged the leaders in global percent use of renewable energy for the networks.

SK Telecom, NTT DoCoMo, and Singtel emerged as followers, primarily due to challenges in their regions for sourcing renewable energy (the companies are still close to zero percent for renewable energy use, despite future pledges), and for less breadth and depth in overall sustainability tracking and reporting.

"We acknowledged in the index that different regions face different geo-political, cost, and infrastructure barriers for sourcing renewable energy," concludes Johnson.

For example, Korea is the fourth largest importer of coal, after China, India, and Japan. This makes early mover advances, such as SK Group in Korea joining the RE100 coalition and pledging 100 percent renewable energy use by 2050 and NTT DoCoMo pledging 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 even more critical to global climate efforts.

Outlook for Telecom Infrastructure Sustainability Growth

The big picture in producing the ABI Research Sustainability Index is to highlight the best practices across the telecommunications industry with the goal of further reducing carbon emissions for all.

That said, I believe the timing of these assessments is being driven by climate change public policy, both current and planned. Examples of enacted legislation involving climate change issues include tax incentives to promote renewable energy sources and carbon capture.

Moreover, the volatile market for fossil fuel energy has prompted government leaders to accelerate plans to adopt more renewable energy sources as a national security imperative. Meanwhile, owners of oil and gas reserves feel compelled to leverage their assets now, knowing future demand is no longer assured.

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