Measurably better: how we use tech to reduce networks’ carbon emissions

On 05-04-2024
Reading time : 10 minutes

In today’s hyperconnected world, international telecoms networks provide the backbone of global communications. But the rapid growth of networks has created a significant carbon footprint, which needs to be urgently reduced. In this article we look at recent innovations we have implemented in our own network to do just that.

The statistics are stark: according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the worldwide ICT sector is responsible for around 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with telecoms networks being a significant chunk of that. Data centers already consume about 1% of the world's electricity and are forecast to use more moving forward. In fact, Greenpeace reports that Internet-related carbon emissions could exceed those of the aviation industry by 2025 if left unchecked.

It all adds up to a pressing need to reduce the emissions our industry creates. Already 50 global operators have pledged to reduce carbon footprints over the next decade, according to the GSMA. And some operators, including Orange, have committed to net-zero targets by 2040, a full ten years ahead of the general industry schedule.

Enhancing measurement is the first step towards reducing emissions

One of the biggest challenges to reducing carbon emissions in telecoms networks is being able to measure them accurately. We outline four areas to address that will make measurement easier, more accurate, and more systematic.

Four measurement areas to focus on

  1. Data availability and quality. Measuring the environmental impact of international networks and data centers requires data to be gathered from an extensive ecosystem of multiple vendors and partners worldwide. This is a difficult but necessary undertaking. When selecting new equipment, the ease with which measurements can be taken and the carbon impact of the equipment must be considered.
  2. Selection of energy sources. Telecom operators typically utilize a mix of energy sources in networks and data centers, including grid electricity, renewable energy sources, and backup generators. Monitoring and measuring the carbon intensity of these various sources is a complex process, and energy sources also vary by country. For example, where Finland reports a carbon intensity of 64g of CO₂eq/kWh, Poland’s is at 943g. The location of data centers and the choice of energy suppliers are critical strategies that can dramatically affect the network's environmental impact.
  3. Standardized methodologies. The telecom industry has no universally accepted methodology for measuring carbon emissions. However, this may change now the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) has come into force from January 1st, 2024. This legislation requires companies to report on and be auditable for the impact of their activities on society and the environment, including climate, pollution, water, biodiversity, resources, and circular economics data. It’s a major step that will drive European companies into a virtuous cycle of measurement, comparison and continuous improvement.
  4. Visibility of indirect emissions. Telcos typically have limited control or visibility into indirect emissions, for example, those from end customer devices or third-party services that utilize their networks. Nevertheless, telecom operators can engage with their suppliers to enhance the availability of data as mentioned earlier. Gathering data on carbon emissions throughout the products and services lifecycle will help identify areas of improvement at all stages. Telcos will then be able to engage with both their suppliers and customers to promote sustainability and environmentally friendly practices throughout the supply chain, such as adopting energy-efficient devices, recycling or refurbishing old devices, etc.

The promising role of AI in improving efficiencies

The traditional method of estimating the environmental impact of a product is called the “Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).” It’s a thorough procedure that investigates the processes relating to the product's whole life, from production to usage and disposal.

There are specifics that telcos can do, such as leveraging new technologies to drive improvements in emissions measurement. AI is one digital development already being used to increase efficiencies in telco operations: Google’s DeepMind AI is one example where AI has been used to analyze patterns in energy use and helped reduce cooling costs in data centers by 40%, leading to substantial energy savings and emission reductions.

Our own experience in reducing data center energy consumption

Indeed, with data centers being one of the largest consumers of energy in telecommunications, it’s an area that is ripe for targeting with technology-enabled solutions. Because we have a sizeable carbon footprint associated with our own data centers, Orange Wholesale has set out to reduce our scope 2 emissions through better practices and innovative tools. One notable recent achievement was our implementation of Ethernetic’s AI-driven Smart Power Distribution Unit (PDU) which monitors and reduces energy usage at rack level.

The Ethernetic solution manages power usage, including Power Supply Management. It virtually switches off one of the power supply lines when this is possible without any impact on customer service. The solution also includes load balancing between servers in a rack by detecting excessive consumption, and idle server detection, which uses AI to detect patterns of idleness (pure idle, near idle, and cyclic idle). The Operator may then decide on the most appropriate usage of the asset, or to shut the system down for shorter or longer periods.

Selecting these “green-by-design” solutions aligns with the Orange general goal of minimizing our environmental impact and our commitment to sustainability.

The initial results of the Ethernetics tool were impressive: in addition to our ability to measure energy consumption precisely, we managed to reduce carbon emissions and wasted energy by more than 12%. Following a successful proof-of-concept of the Ethernetics tool in our data centers in France and the Netherlands, we plan to deploy the solution across all of our data centers by the end of 2025.

A positive environmental impact for us and our customers

Our goal is that these projects will contribute to making our products and services more energy-efficient and lower their environmental impact, which will in turn be beneficial to our customers’ own carbon reduction programs. It aligns with Orange Group’s ambitious target to be carbon net-zero by 2040. Every entity in the Orange Group, including Orange Wholesale, is actively working to achieve this ambition.

Our overall aim is to do the right thing, be a trusted partner to all in our ecosystem, and help our partners and suppliers achieve their own CO2 emission reduction objectives. The challenge is real and important: The Carbon Trust estimates that implementing energy-efficient practices in the telecom sector could reduce emissions by up to 40%,and Orange is proud to play our part.

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